Hundreds of dead birds wash up on Unalaska shoreline

Cause of mass die-off unknown

Posted: Monday, September 04, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Hundreds of dead sea birds washed ashore on Unalaska Island over a two-day span and scientists were trying to figure out why.

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Several hundred shearwaters died after flying into a crabbing boat early Wednesday morning in Unalaska Bay, said Forrest Bowers, a fisheries biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska.

The boat captain reported a hail of shearwaters struck the vessel for up to 30 minutes, Bowers said. The crew threw the dead and dying birds overboard.

Other boats were in the area and also might have been struck by the birds.

There have been other reports of such occurrences, but not usually in such large numbers, according to Bowers.

Seabird specialist Art Sowls at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer was called in to consult on the deaths. He said shearwaters can be in flocks of more than a million birds. The birds go through a molting process that limits their ability to fly.

"They can fly," he said, "but they are somewhat immobile."

Reid Brewer, a local marine biologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said he counted more than 1,600 bird carcasses on shores near homes in Unalaska and along beaches outside the Aleutian island community.

He said the birds don't look thin and aren't oiled. Some had necks twisted as if they had smashed into something.

Starvation would be a far more likely cause for the deaths than a collision, said David Irons, a seabird authority with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"They don't normally run into ships," he said.

But it is possible, he said, that birds weakened by hunger could have hit boats or that the carcasses washing ashore could be a combination of birds that starved and birds that hit ships.

Irons said he expects that the dead birds will be checked for avian flu but everyone involved with the die-off believes that it is an unlikely cause.

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