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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Bird deaths blamed on weather

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review

NEAH BAY, Wash. – The mass starvation of murres on Tatoosh Island off the Olympic Peninsula may be in part because of unusual weather patterns along the West Coast, scientists say.

Last year didn’t have the winds and currents necessary to maintain the network of marine food crucial to the seabirds’ diet. Breeding failures during the summer were preceded by tens of thousands of birds washing up dead on beaches in Washington, Oregon and California.

In Washington, the state’s largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls suffered when the normal fledge count plummeted from 8,000 chicks to 88 last year.

The breeding failure isn’t expected to harm the birds’ overall population, but it has raised questions.

“The whole process broke down,” said University of Washington researcher Julia Parrish, who witnessed bird deaths repeatedly last summer while observing 6,000 nesting murres on the island about a half mile off Cape Flattery at the tip of the peninsula. “We don’t know what happened.”

Researchers met over the issue this month in Seattle, but they were unable to trace the source of the strange weather, except to consider global warming’s effects in the past year.

The oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, marine mammal experts, seabird biologists and researchers who model ecosystems and ocean circulation now plan to write a series of scientific papers carefully documenting their observations.

Last year, the region enjoyed sunny winter days with little snow in the mountains. The warm, dry weather also marked the third year of above-normal ocean temperatures.

In early spring, the rain came. And when the birds should have been breeding and feeding babies, they were instead found dead.

“It was the birds that were the first harbingers of this whole problem,” said Bill Peterson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

At the same time, researchers recorded low catches of juvenile salmon and rockfish, and there were sightings of emaciated gray whales. Those findings were preceded by the first appearance in Washington waters of thousands of squid normally not found north of San Francisco. And a plankton typically found near San Diego bloomed along Northwest beaches.

Scientists say to expect more of the same as the planet warms and weather patterns are altered.

“There are all these unconnected reports of biological failures,” said John McGowan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. “It’s all the way up and down the coast. … There’s a lot of evidence there are important changes going on in the Pacific coast system.”

Based on monthly surveys, researchers estimate the dead birds numbered in the tens of thousands, mostly Brandt’s cormorants and common murres.

“They were clearly starving to death – no fat, reduced musculature,” Parrish said. “The smoking gun is no food.”

The cormorant and murre both rely heavily on diving deep underwater for small schooling baitfish that also feed whales, seals, salmon and other animals.

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