Birds are dying by the hundreds in western Newfoundland. Seabird experts want to know why

Hundreds of murres are dying on the ice and on the coast of Hampden in western Newfoundland, and residents and experts are wondering why. (Troy Turner/CBC)

Dead seabirds are appearing by the hundreds on the ice and on the shore near the town of Hampden in western Newfoundland, leaving residents and biologists baffled and searching for a reason.

Longtime resident and murre hunter Gary Gale told CBC News on Friday he had never seen an event of this magnitude before. He said the birds started flying in the bay about a week ago – and within days they started dying.

“[It’s] amazing,” Gale said. “Several years ago it was common to see seabirds picking up oil if you had an oil spill and die picking up the oil, but I did check on some birds near the shore and I saw no oil in the feathers.”

Gale said locals thought the birds – which so far appeared to be entirely guillemots – were starving.

Sabina Wilhelm, a wildlife biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, said the event is being investigated, but it’s not just happening near Hampden. Reports also came in from southern Labrador of a similar incident, she said.

Federal wildlife law enforcement officers were in Hampden Thursday and collected several birds to be sent to St. John’s, where they will be examined to determine the cause of death, Wilhelm said, while provincial officers from conservation are doing the same in Labrador. On Friday, wildlife technicians were also traveling to the northeast coast of Newfoundland to collect dead birds in that area, she said.

Wildlife authorities are investigating the cause of the mass mortality. (Troy Turner/CBC)

Wilhelm said it was treated as one big event.

“It seems to be pretty widespread,” she said, but they “just don’t know” what happened.

“That’s why we’re really working to get the birds here as quickly as possible to determine a cause of death.”

Unusual event

Wilhelm said it’s not unusual to see dead seabirds at this time of year as they fly into bays and get caught in sea ice. But, she said, the volume of dead birds found this week is rare and sea ice does not appear to be a factor.

“There’s definitely ice there, but not enough ice to suggest they were trapped in a bay,” Wilhelm said.

“Looking at the ice chart, it looks like the waters are relatively quite open. It’s unusual to see so many birds reported over such a large area for no clear and obvious reason. That’s why we’re making it a priority to find know what’s going on.”

Seabird expert Bill Montevecchi says he also hears of birds in similar condition at Twillingate and Cape Freels. (Darryl Murphy/CBC)

Seabird expert Bill Montevecchi said on Friday he had heard of dead birds found in Twillingate, on Newfoundland’s northeast coast, and picked up one himself at Cape Freels to have it examined in St. John’s.

Whatever happens, he says, is an anomaly.

“Whenever that happens, and for whatever reason, we really want to probe and try to get to the bottom of it.”

Wilhelm said a preliminary cause of death for the birds found at Hampden could be determined by the end of next week.

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