Hundreds of seabirds inundated wildlife rehabilitation centers in the Pacific Northwest last week after a bizarre run-in with marine algae. The single-celled organisms implicated in the incident are common in the waters off the coast of California, but are usually not found as far north as Oregon and Washington. Warmer than usual ocean temperatures may have permitted the algae to reach more northern regions. Extraordinary numbers of the algal organisms were churned up by stormy weather coming south from Alaska, and a protein produced by the algae turned into a frothy foam that proved fatal to seabirds. Just as oil strips bird feathers of their waterproofing ability, the foam produced by the algae deprives the birds of the ability to keep cold ocean waters from soaking through their plumage, leading to hypothermia and death.
The affected birds, mostly Common Murres, loons, scoters and grebes, are being treated in rehabilitation centers until their waterproofing is restored. The International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) in northern California stepped in to help in the efforts when rehab facilities in Oregon and Washington were overwhelmed. You can learn more about how the surviving seabirds are being treated and how you can help at IBRRC’s website.