Alaska’s Sea Birds: Where, when, and why they need us

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This is sponsored content on behalf of Dawn Saves Wildlife.

Rebecca Duerr, research director and veterinarian of the International Bird Rescue, doesn’t mince words when talking about the future of Alaska’s sea birds. 

“Climate change,” she told me, “will make life a lot harder for sea birds.” 

What is a sea bird, exactly? Also known as “marine birds,” sea birds are those feathered friends who have adapted completely to a life in a marine (ocean) environment. These birds eat, breed, and raise young in or near the sea, often in great colonies, and often far, far from people. Some birds come to land only to raise young, like the Arctic terns we see during the summer months colonizing on the Alaska Railroad tracks near Anchorage’s Potter Marsh and Portage areas. Others, like puffins, like to dig holes in the rocky cliffs to place their eggs, at distances that would make us dizzy. 

Sea birds are an important indicator of overall ocean ecosystem health. How? They depend on many things to survive and thrive, most of all food. Crabs, fish, squid– all these things are part of the food chain that, guess what? We also depend upon for food and industry. But for the birds, if the food is gone, they won’t be able to rear their young or live long enough to breed. Often, sea birds are the first indicator of a problem, because they are there, always. They don’t have a choice. 

Alaska’s sea birds have been in trouble for a few years, and scientists, fishermen, and others are very concerned about it. 

A Common murre. Image courtesy Audubon Society.

What’s going on? Alaska has seen historic numbers of sea bird die offs in recent years, most notably the Common murre, a bird that normally spends its days living in the ocean, feeding on fish it can grab while diving, sometimes up to 200 feet. It is not a very agile flyer, preferring instead to stay on the water or hang out on rocks, but that’s been a problem. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other resource agencies estimate that more than 100,000 murres have died between 2015 and 2016. There are, by the way, only an estimated 2 million murres in the entire state. 

Why are they dying? Dr. Duerr of IBR thinks it’s like this: 

“With warmer water on the surface, food like fish or invertebrates sea birds depend on may swim deeper and be out of reach. Seabirds may not be able to find enough to feed their chicks, or their chicks may starve when they can’t find food after they are on their own. Malnourished birds are at higher risk of death from disease due to not having the energy to fight off infections.” 

Wait, in Alaska, a place positively full of food for man and beast, birds are starving

That’s right. The main culprit, many believe, is climate change. 

I am not going to argue the causes here, because that’s an issue for another day here at the AKontheGO Kids Corner. But Earth’s ocean temperatures are rising. They are, and the death of Common murres is likely caused by warmer temperatures preventing the birds from catching the fish they need, since the fish like colder water beyond the murres’ reach. 

Don’t species have occasional “bad years”? Of course they do. In fact, it’s called “a wreck” <— pretty good term, huh? 

Dr. Duerr told me that sea birds are adapted (that means they’ve evolved over time to handle specific conditions) to dealing with occasional bad breeding years. As long as the adult birds can survive until conditions change, they population may still be OK. 

But, she says, “Lean times can only go on so long before individuals, then local groups, then regional populations, then entire species may be vulnerable to extinction.”

Commonly mistaken for little penguins (no penguins exist in Alaska, by the way), the murre is a handsome sea bird. Image courtesy oiseaux-birds.com

Wait, extinction? Yep. And in the case of the Common murre, it’s all about food supply. The dead murres that were examined by scientists after they were found lining many of Alaska’s shorelines had starved to death. Other reasons for extinction may be due to other environmental stressors, Dr. Duerr said. Things like toxic contaminants like oil, something we here in Alaska worry about a lot. Other reasons can be crowding of the habitat (Imagine if a whole town was crammed into one house. Everyone standing shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to live, eat, sleep, find food? It wouldn’t be pretty.) or increased predation by other animals or birds. 

In Alaska’s case, the loss of sea birds may even come as a result of polar bears that can’t hunt using their usual method of swimming between sections of sea ice, so they go find a nest of eggs or newly-hatched chicks. This is all well and good, says Dr. Duerr, “But it takes a whole lot of those to make up for one fat seal.” 

Birds, beaches, and kids at the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Can we do anything? As a matter of fact, Duerr says, you can. Right now. 

  1. Learn all you can about Alaska’s sea birds. Visit places like Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward; or Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer. Watch, take pictures, share video of your favorite sea birds and tell everybody you know how wonderful they are. 
  2. Help keep our oceans clean. Participate in beach clean ups and reduce, reuse, and recycle your plastic and other trash that can damage a bird’s delicate system. 
  3. Reduce your personal carbon footprint. Not sure what that is? It’s a way for all humans on Earth to keep track of how much carbon dioxide we release into the air and fossil fuels we use, personally, by driving, flying, using plastics (made from fossil fuel compounds), and other things. Find out more, HERE
  4. Eat sustainable seafood. This means seafood caught or managed in such a way that it will preserve the long term life of the species. Alaska relies heavily upon sustainable seafood practices, because up here fishing and crabbing are a huge way of life for many people. Dr. Duerr recommends visiting Seafood Watch for a list of products that are raised and caught in a sustainable way. I also recomment the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute for recipes, information, and cool facts for kids. 

Thought this was just about birds? Nope. It’s about you, me, and your family and friends. It’s going to take us all, guys. Every one of us. 

Let’s get started!

~EK 

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  1. Pingback: It's Shorebird Season in Alaska - What you can do - AK on the GO

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