Environment

Morro Bay wildlife center cares for dozens of starving seabirds

A grebe dines on some smelt while rehabbing at the Pacific Wildlife Care rehabilitation center in Morro Bay, which has taken in over 100 grebes found on local beaches suffering from starvation.
A grebe dines on some smelt while rehabbing at the Pacific Wildlife Care rehabilitation center in Morro Bay, which has taken in over 100 grebes found on local beaches suffering from starvation. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Over the past week, dozens of starving grebes have been found on area beaches, inundating the Pacific Wildlife Care rehabilitation center in Morro Bay.

As of early this week, 119 of the seabirds had been turned into the rehabilitation center. All show signs of starvation, said Shannon Riggs, veterinarian and director of animal care at the center.

“We are up to our eyeballs in grebes,” she said. “They eat 75 pounds of fish a day.”

The birds, many of them juveniles, will stay at the center for two to three weeks while they regain their strength. Most will be released back into the wild in Morro Bay.

“The bay is a good place for young birds because it is sheltered and has plenty of food for them,” Riggs said.

Almost all of the birds have been western grebes, with a few eared grebes mixed in. Dead grebes on area beaches have also been reported.

Whether the starving birds are a local phenomenon or more widespread wasn’t known Tuesday. But a wildlife rehabilitation center in Eureka has also reported an influx of starving grebes. The Humboldt Wildlife Care Center admitted 37 of the birds over the past week.

It is normal for the Morro Bay center to get a few starving grebes this time of year, but the current influx has been unusual. There are several possible reasons for this, Riggs said.

Grebes spend the spring and summer months feeding on fish at inland lakes before heading to the ocean in the fall. Extreme drought conditions in the West have caused many of these lakes to shrink.

This may be causing the grebes to leave early or in a weakened condition for the flight to the ocean, Riggs said. Also, when the birds get to the ocean, the feeding conditions are not ideal this year.

Unusually warm sea temperatures have caused the small fish the grebes feed on to retreat to deeper water, making it more difficult for the grebes to catch them. Also, large swells and rough ocean conditions caused by storms have degraded feeding conditions.

A grebe will not come onto the beach unless it is in distress, Riggs said. To report a wild animal in need of rescue, call 543-9453. 

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