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Concerns have been raised after reports of 'unprecedented' deaths amongst guillemots in the north of the UK.
The seabirds have reportedly been found starving and washed up dead along the coast of Scotland and northeast England. The birds have also been seen closer to shore than normal, away from their hunting grounds out in the open water.
Totally surreal encounter with 18 guillemots on this short section of the R. Teith - calling, standing around on the banks, and sometimes flying. Local dippers confused. Also 1 osprey & 1 red kite @UpperForthBirds @UKCEHseabirds pic.twitter.com/VnHsYNExls— Tom Finch (@tomfinch89) September 11, 2021
Toxins, climate change and a lack of food have been suggested as causes, but the exact reasons remain unclear.
Dr Alex Bond, Senior Curator in Charge of birds at the Museum, says that while mass guillemot dying events, known as wrecks, aren't unfamiliar, this one is different.
'What's unusual about this is the timing,' he says. 'Wrecks normally occur in winter, and these are often associated with bad weather. Guillemots spend most of their time on water, not on land, so a big storm can beat them up a bit.
'The fact we're seeing lots of them in unusual places suggests this wreck is something quite different.'
Guillemots are often found around the coasts of the UK, with their distinctive black and white plumage seen high up on sheer cliffs or over the waves. There are large colonies of the birds which nest annually on offshore islands along the Northumbrian and Scottish coast.
The birds spend most of their lives at sea hunting for fish like herring and hake, only come back to land to rest and lay eggs.
But in the last few weeks concerns have been raised as reports of the birds coming in close to the shore and heading up rivers started to roll in. Emaciated guillemots have also been brought into rescue centres, while others have been found dead on beaches across the north of the UK.
While the cause of this wreck is not yet known, a number of different causes have been suggested.
'It could be related to a lack of food, toxins or a harmful algal bloom,' Alex says. 'But whether or not it's one of these factors remains to be seen.
'Seeing guillemots in strange places suggests it could be related to a hunt for food, but it could also be to do with algal blooms, or toxins more generally, causing strange behaviour in these birds.'
The cause is currently being investigated by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). They have found guillemots which are half their usual weight and are analysing the corpses of the birds for evidence. Recent testing has ruled out bird flu, with other causes still under consideration.
STOP PRESS: 9 guillemots and 1 razorbill collected from St Andrew’s Bay last week were screened by @SRUC and ALL tested NEGATIVE for AVIAN INFLUENZA.— Francis Daunt (@FrancisDaunt) September 17, 2021
The search goes on for a cause, with food-related starvation and toxins being considered. #seabirds #avianflu #ornithology pic.twitter.com/Uzhr2IwtDB
Dr Francis Daunt, from the centre, told the BBC that the level of deaths at present are 'unprecedented in its scale and number.'
He added: 'It's also been going on for some weeks so it's a serious problem.'
While the search continues, Alex advises that anyone finding guillemots in a bad way should get in touch with researchers.
'If you do find dead birds, or see unusual behaviour, then you should contact the CEH to let them know,' he says.
If you do come across a dead bird, experts advise that you don't touch it with your bare hands, but instead use gloves and other PPE to handle it if necessary.