Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Stormy Seas for Guillemots and Other Auks
This afternoon, in the storm, several dead Guillemots were washed up along the shore at Templetown Beach. Guillemots are members of the auk family, which are the northern hemisphere equivalent of penguins. These pigeon-sized birds generally spend the winter out on the Irish sea of further afield where they hunt for fish by diving deep under the water. Every year thousands die in storms, from injury, because they get oiled or simply because they are too young and inexperienced. Often the first problem is a failure to find fish, either because of the storm or because the fish species that they hunt are not there (primarily due to over-fishing but global warming is also probably a big factor). Once the bird cant fish it looses body fat and gets cold. When it gets cold it comes to the shore to get out of the cold water. Here it slowly starves and most birds are finished off by gulls or other predators.
However it is possible for them to overcome this if it is just a minor setback.
A few weeks ago neighbours dropped a Guillemot into the house. The bird had been sitting on the shore, apparently unable to fly and unwilling to get into the water. A quick examination revealed that the bird was starving (sharp keel bone) and had a minor soft ti sue injury under its wing, like a shotgun pellet but it is just as likely that the bird swam into something like a piece of wire under the water. Critically both wings were intact with no sign of any break. Anyway after an hour or twos rest in a dark warm quiet place (a cardboard box with cloth bedding in the back room!) the bird was fed using initially slices of fresh mackerel fillet (if an auk will not feed itself it may be force fed by opening its beak wide and gently pushing bits of whitebait sized fish down into its crop (do not give water as it may go into the birds airways).
Please note that you should not try this unless you have good experience of handling birds - always seek expert advice!!!
After two days the bird, now ensconced in our bathroom, to the great consternation of my wife, though the delight of my children, was devouring a half fillet of mackerel and 20 or so defrosted whitebait a day and the injury was apparently healed. So we kept him one more day before releasing him near where he had been found.
The bird was initially reluctant to get into the water (never throw a bird in the air or water when releasing it) but after 10 minutes slipped into the water and the following day could be seen far out in the same area (its head parts were stained from force feeding).
Lessons: I had always heard that auks should be placed in the bath in a few inches of water. While this is true for a healthy bird, it is the wrong approach for a bird in poor condition, who will simply get wet and cold. The basis of this advice is that auks are very prone to burn marks on their keel and their hocks form sitting on a hard surface, so always place them sitting on something soft with the option to get into the water if they wish. Another mistake I made was using cold tap water, the sea (once you get away from the shore) is about 15 deg C even in winter, so adjust the temperature of the bath to 15 - 20 deg C. Finally, while frozen whitebait goes down very well with a Guillemot, it must be supplemented either by fresh fish or by "Fish Eaters Tablets" as frozen fish lacks several B vitamin that the bird requires daily.