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Strange Arctic Bird Appearing Along Our Coast

Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team - Universtiy of Washington

An unusual number of arctic birds called dovekies are turning up along the coast often injured and malnourished.  We speak with a local wildlife sanctuary about this phenomenon and why the birds are dying after being rehabilitated.

It’s a sign of spring and warm weather… birds returning to eastern North Carolina after spending the winter down south.  But for one species, making the journey back home has become perilous.  The dovekie, a small arctic bird resembling a penguin only stands an average eight inches tall, but it makes a thousand mile journey every spring.

Recently, more than a dozen dovekies have been found washed up on the North Carolina coast, starving and injured. The Possumwood Acres Wildlife Sanctuary in Hubert has been on the frontlines in trying to rehabilitate the emaciated birds.  Over the past decade, Toni O’Neil remembers only one dovekie coming in.  This year, they’ve treated more than 15.

“They’re pelagic birds meaning they’re birds that are going to be found way out at sea. They’re way out at the other side of the Gulf stream. You’re never going to see them on the shore.  And you’re certainly should not be seeing them come in anywhere on the coast of North Carolina right now.”

When a group of stranded, starving birds appear, it’s known as a wreck.  According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the largest recorded wreck in North America occurred in the winter of 1932, when dovekies rained down on the streets of New York City and large numbers washed up along the entire eastern seaboard, from Nova Scotia to Florida.  While nothing of this magnitude has happened since, O’Neil says the sanctuary is seeing an unusual number of dovekies up and down the North Carolina coast.

“There’s also been some reports of right off the surf line, people were watching a small little raft of them of about 15 to 20 of them just kind of swimming around.  Very, very unusual being in a place where they shouldn’t be.”

And it’s not just in North Carolina.  Shelters in Virginia have treated a half dozen dovekies in the past month.  No one really knows why these birds are turning up here but O’Neil suggests recent storms may have blown them off course.  It’s also possible the dovekies were in search of food. 

“They come in, we give them fluid therapy.  We tube them with IV fluids, just like you do in a hospital with lactated ringer solution, with what they call an electrolyte solution and we just give them some of that to perk their system back up. And then when they seem to be a little stronger, then we’ll offer them small slivers of fish.”

Another issue scientist and wildlife advocates are scratching their heads over is why the dovekies are suddenly dying after receiving treatment.  Of the 15 birds that O’Neil has received, none have survived. 

“When they come in, they’re up on their little feet and they’re hopping all around and they’re making little squalking noises, they’re bright eyed and perky looking and they’re snapping at you and you’re like oh, you should be fine in a couple of days. And all of a sudden, they fall over and die.  Boom, just like that.”

Dovekies are highly stressed birds and the fact that they’re out of their natural habitat can overwhelm them and cause them to die suddenly. 

“I was checking to see with other rehabilitators to see if I was doing something wrong, is there something I could do better.  Is there a different treatment I should try? I checked all the way from Wilmington down to Oak Island and all the way up into Ocracoke.  Everybody is having the same problems.  None of them are making it.”

O’Neil says the dovekies brought to the sanctuary have had black excrement, which is unusual.  Scientist are investigating the possibility that the birds ingested something toxic, such as algae from Red Tide.  Dr. Craig Harms is the Associate Professor with the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University, based at the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City.  Dr. Harms says four dovekies were sent to them for testing.

 “The main thing was there was no outstanding gross lesions but every one of them was really thin which is not too unusual for some of the seabirds that we see down here out of range.”

After performing the necropsy, tissue samples were sent to the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Research Group at the University of Georgia for further analysis.  They also submitted samples to the Toxicology and Pathology lab looking specifically for naturally occurring toxins.

“That’s not something that’s going to be run or available for a while.  Now, red tide or the brevetoxin or domoic acid which is another marine organism both do occur occasionally off our coast. Fortunately not as frequent as they do down south but it’s something we need to watch out for.”

If you happen upon a dovekie that’s injured or in need of care, Possumwood Acres' Toni O’Neil says it’s important that the bird be treated right away.

“We tell them get a little small towel and pick them up with a towel and put them with the towel into a box, they can sit on the towel and then close the box so it will look kind of dark and quiet for them. That will help reduce stress for them. And then just to get on the phone and call us and then we will give them directions and they can bring it here.”

The phone number is 910-326-6432.  For more information on wildlife rehabilitation at the non-profit Possumwood Acres in Hubert, visit our website publicradioeast.org.

For more information, click: http://www.possumwoodacres.org/

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.