On June 14, 2005, many concerned visitors to Morro Strand State Beach came across a seabird, a Common Murre, that never should have been on the beach. The bird stood a foot in front of the water's edge and faced the land rather than the sea. That it was on the beach was already a sign that something was desperately wrong. The murre spends 270 days a year at sea, and its time on land is spent on rocky cliffs facing the sea.
The second desperate sign was that the bird did not react as our young daughter approached and we held her back. The bird did not even seem to be able to see the tide flowing in and out, and it was making no attempt to seek its ocean home.
My husband was the first amongst the small crowd that had gathered to notice that not all of the black on the bird was due to the color of its feathers; rather some of the black came from a deadly smear of oil.
We immediately called the Morro Bay Natural History Museum for a referral to a wildlife rehabilitation group. They referred us to Pacific Wildlife Care, an all-volunteer, non-profit organization that helps to rescue and rehabilitate hundreds of animals each year.
A volunteer came out to pick the bird up. Despite their efforts, the bird died sadly the next day. The group confirmed that it was a Common Murre and told us that tragically many murres had been struggling up to local beaches. Even just a small, localized oil spill can have a deadly effect on murres, because they cluster together in rafts on the surface of the ocean where the oil congregates.
Although common murres are not endangered, each life is still important.
They are crow-sized birds who tend to remain upright when on land. In the photo above, some of the murre's feathers are covered with oil. In the summer, murres have brownish black heads, necks, and backs. Their chests are white.
Common murres spend 9 months of the year at sea. They literally sleep on the waves.
In search of fish, shrimp, and squid, they are able to dive an incredible 240 feet. This distance is equivalent to almost the length of a football field or to the tallest recorded height of the King of Pines, the sugar pine.
An oil spill affects one of the key features they need for survival, the feathers that keep them warm against cold ocean temperatures. When my daughter and I hide under a blanket, I am always surprised by how warm the air becomes trapped under the blanket. Similarly, the feathers of murres link together to trap warm air next to the birds' skin, protecting the skin from the cold water. When oil coats the feathers, the warm air escapes. The birds try to clean their feathers with their beaks to become warm again. They are unable to, and even worse, they end up swallowing the oil which causes damage to red blood cells, kidney and liver problems, and lung diseases such as pneumonia and emphysema.
Murres like to form large groups and float together, dive and feed together, and nest together in rocky cliff colonies.
Their eggs are pear-shaped so that they roll in circles instead of precariously straight off the rocky cliffs. However, when the young are ready to try swimming, they take a plunge off the cliffs in a controlled free-fall. Their wings are not fully mature, but they manage to glide to the water's surface while their fathers supervise.
When I first learned about murres, I thought their name was odd, and I wasn't sure how to pronounce it (it is mrrr as in rhyming with purr rather than rhyming with sure). The name actually comes from the sound they make when they fly, a purring mrrr sound. I wonder how people are able to hear them when they fly, since so often they fly over the ocean. Perhaps when they come to raise baby murres on rocky cliffs, people are able to hear how they sound like their name.
When they float on the waves, they are silent, and I imagine fancifully that they prefer just to listen to the sound of the water. When they are nesting, they make an arrrh, arrrh growling sound, similar to that of a pirate.