Common Murres – Out of Place and Out of Time

Iditarod musher Jeff King found a weird bird in Denali National Park last week. While out running dogs, he found a Common Murre along the trail, struggling in the snow. Murres are seabirds, members of the alcid family, and are common throughout the North Pacific and Atlantic. They are not however, common in Denali National Park, which lies some 200 miles from the nearest saltwater. The strangest thing about Jeff King’s encounter, is that this Murre wasn’t the first he’d found, but was the second in just a few days (video below).

King’s observation is weird, but even more strangely, it isn’t unique. Over the past few weeks, Murres have appeared all kinds of places where they shouldn’t. A bird rehab facility in the Susitna Valley took in more than 20, last Saturday alone. Two have even appeared here in the Fairbanks area. It’s more than a bit weird.

Common Murres are appropriately named. They are, in fact, one of the most abundant birds on the planet with a world population of 13-20 million, 8-10 million of which live in the North Pacific. In the summer, they nest in cliffside colonies, often shared with other seabirds. But in the winter, they disperse up and down the coasts and out to sea (though, as we’ll learn, they aren’t the best fliers). According to the Birds of North America account for the species, they subsist largely on small fish and euphasiid shrimp.

The appearance of these seabirds inland, coincides with a mass die-off in the North Pacific. Up and down the Kenai Peninsula and in Prince William Sound, Murres have been washing up dead on the beaches, thousands and thousands of them. Most seem to have starved.

The press, of course, is having a heyday with this. Terms like “devastating”, “unprecedented”, and “catastrophic” are being thrown around. But the reality is not so clear, and in fact, major die-offs have occurred a number of times before. Curious to know more, I checked in with Dr. Robert Day, a seabird researcher at ABR Inc. here in Fairbanks. Bob told me, “the biggest Murre die-off in Alaska I am aware of was in the 1970s. There was a massive die-off in Bristol Bay in winter, estimated at a couple of hundred thousand birds.” He sent me a paper by Edgar Baily reporting the die off which published in The Condor.

So as concerning as this current die off is, “unprecedented” is not the right word to describe it.

Something is causing thousands and thousands of Murres to starve and Bob Day provided some insight, “There’s been a big blob of unproductive, warm water at the surface of the entire northeast Pacific. Birds have been dying for awhile, as far south as California. Their prey have presumably moved deeper in the water column.” In other words, the birds can’t reach their food.

There has also been a correlation noted between seabird mortality and the El Nino weather pattern. As anyone in Alaska can tell you, it’s been an exceptionally warm winter. The strength of this year’s El Nino, and the widespread “blob” of warm water in the North Pacific is a recipe for disaster for seabirds, especially, Common Murres.

It’s a Catch-22 for Murres. These seabirds are poor fliers compared to their relatives, and simply aren’t capable of moving long distances in search of food. This is particularly true when they are already hungry and stressed. Unable to move far, they simply starve as they wait for conditions to change. Other alcids that rely on the same or similar prey as Murres have escaped the warm water and lack of prey by flying longer distances in search of food. So species like puffins, murrelets, and auklets haven’t experienced the same mortality. Bob Day succinctly put it, “Murres are left holding the bag in terms of the ability to get out of dodge”.

But the question of why these birds are suddenly appearing hundreds of miles inland remains. The answer lies in a combination of factors. The stressed Murres are already searching, as best as they can, for food, meaning they are already wandering. In the middle of it all comes this big wind storm tearing up out of the south. Hundred mile an hour winds pelted the south-central coast of Alaska and ripped up through the passes of the Alaska Range. It was a massive flow of air that brought temperatures in the interior and northern parts of the state up 40 degrees overnight.

Poor fliers, with poor wing-loading (meaning a lot of body weight for low surface area) Common Murres were caught in the gale and carried inland until eventually they landed anywhere they could. The birds that people have found in the Alaska Range and the interior are likely just a small portion of those carried north. I cringe to think of the fate of the hundred or even thousands of others that are undoubtedly scattered across the mountains and forests of the interior.

It’s ugly out there for Murres, no question. But if El Nino fades as predicted over the coming year and “the blob” disperses, we will hopefully see a return to normal in the North Pacific. It’s just that there will be tens of thousands fewer Common Murres to experience it.

Thanks to Dr. Robert Day, Senior Scientist, ABR Inc. for his input on this article.
Day, Robert H. 2006. Seabirds in the norther Gulf of Alaska and adjacent waters, October to May. Western Birds Vol 37 (4): 190-214.
Nysewander, David R., and John L. Trapp. 1983. Widespread mortality of adult seabirds in Alaska, August to September 1983. USFWS Report.
Bailey, Edgar P., and Glenn H. Davenport. 1972. Die-off of Common Murres on the Alaska Peninula and Unimak Island. The Condor.