Puzzling Influx of Northern Fulmars: More Beached Seabirds In Care

Some 30 young Northern Fulmars, a pelagic bird species, in care at San Francisco Bay-Delta wildlife center. Photo by Ioana Seritan – International Bird Rescue

An uptick in the care of young Northern Fulmars, a bird species that spends most of its life in the open ocean, is a real concern at International Bird Rescue. Currently 30 of these hatch-year gray morph seabirds are in care at our San Francisco Bay-Delta wildlife center. They were recently rescued from the Manchester Beach in Mendocino County. The cause of this stranding is as of yet undetermined.

Recovering at the Los Angeles center, one of Northern Fulmars that was found beached. Photo: Olivia Jenkins – International Bird Rescue

Northern Fulmars are close relatives of albatrosses and are fairly common in the North Pacific. They are well-loved by the wildlife rehabilitation community for their quirky personalities and intoxicating smell. To the non-bird-savvy public, they look rather like a gull with a weird bill. These are pelagic (open ocean) birds that should not be washing up on the beaches.

Approximately 100 of these birds were recently found beached on the Mendocino coast after recent storms and smaller numbers have been spotted beached both alive and dead as far south as San Diego. So far in December, we have admitted 43 live fulmars between our two centers, most from Mendocino, with a few from points south in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Los Angeles counties.

Using Research To Solve A Deepening Mystery

Many of these stranded fulmars show signs of a disease we have been curious about for approaching two decades! In 2003, 2010, and 2012 there were similar stranding events of fulmars along the California coast; some years showed thousands of dead fulmars washing up on beaches with a few dozen entering rehabilitation alive. During each of these events, the birds have largely been first year birds who are stranded weak, underweight, and severely anemic, plus each time we have noticed unusual lesions – severe anemia, plus small hemorrhages, nodules, and blisters, mostly in their foot webbing.

The fulmar deaths were often caused by various secondary fungal or bacterial infections. In 2012 we enlisted pathologists to help us try to get to the bottom of the weird lesions in these stranded birds. Several highly respected wildlife pathologists were convinced the lesions were viral in origin. Their efforts resulted in identification of one novel virus, a gyrovirus, that became a candidate for the culprit, however solid evidence of a cause and effect relationship between this virus and the mass stranding of affected birds and their symptoms remained elusive.

The novel virus isolated in 2012 was most closely related to a virus that causes symptoms in chickens similar to what we see in the fulmars – hemorrhages, anemia, and vulnerability to secondary infections. Hence, it seemed a plausible cause of what we see in the birds during care, but not a sure thing. Nonetheless, we dubbed it Fulmar Foot Syndrome long, long ago. Historically, about half of the birds that have made it into care have survived to release and we have never seen any evidence that the disease is contagious between birds during care.

The fulmars in care have the symptoms of this unknown disease, and most are doing very well in recovery, while obviously enjoying our poolside food service menu. Fulmars can be binge eaters that eat enthusiastically, running up quite a food bill.

We are working with California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to investigate the deaths of those that don’t make it, with the intent of digging deeper into the reasons this species has these infrequent but repeated stranding events. Of course, for young fulmars, maybe this disease is like some of our human childhood diseases where most of the afflicted get over it with little trouble and only a few get seriously ill. Or maybe when young fulmars face adverse conditions such as bad weather or not enough food, they become weak and malnourished and thus vulnerable to disease.

The birds currently in care are not in as poor nutritional condition as fulmars from previous stranding events, but their foot lesions are just as bad. In any case, we will continue to do the best we can for the birds that make it to us.