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Marbled murrelet flies to freedom

September 25, 2017

This summer, the BC SPCA’s Wild Animal Rehabilitation Centre (ARC) on Vancouver Island admitted a rare patient – a Marbled murrelet! Marbled murrelets are seabirds who spend the majority of their lives on the ocean.

They are incredible divers who forage for small fish and invertebrates using their wings to propel them through the water. The only time they come on land is to breed, nesting in some of the oldest trees in the oldest forests of the North Pacific. As they are adapted for life on the sea, coming to land to nest can be quite a challenge.

Marbled murrelets are small, football-shaped birds who are not able to perch on branches like most birds. Instead, they need very large branches that they use like a landing strip with the moss and lichen that grow on the branch helping to soften their not-so-graceful landings when flying in at up to 160 kilometres per hour. It is these very specific nest site requirements that have caused a decline in Marbled murrelet populations during the past century. Increased logging of old-growth forests have limited the availability of nesting sites and since these birds only start breeding at two years of age and only lay one egg at a time, their populations does not rebound easily.

The young Marbled murrelet who was admitted to Wild ARC came from Campbell River. He was found grounded on a gravel driveway and transferred from MARS Rescue Centre to Wild ARC with the help of a volunteer helicopter pilot.

The initial examination showed he was quite thin but his feathers were in great condition and he was otherwise healthy. The Wild ARC rehabilitation team created a specialized feeding plan to increase this young bird’s weight and he was treated with an antifungal medication as these birds are prone to aspergillosis – a fungal infection in the lungs.

Seabirds are especially difficult to rehabilitate as it is essential their feather quality is kept in perfect condition so they remain waterproof. Everything from their food to their bowel movements can soil their feathers and compromise their waterproofing so staff at Wild ARC must gavage feed (tube feed) these birds several times a day, give them frequent baths and change their pool water daily to ensure cleanliness. Weight, body temperature, and blood values are also monitored on a regular basis to ensure that the bird is healthy and improving.

After less than two weeks in care, this Marbled murrelet had gained enough weight and was ready for release.

“He is very feisty!” says wildlife rehabilitator Marguerite Sans. “He is always trying to attack us which is a great sign – it means he is feeling better.”

He was transferred to a specialized transport container that uses mesh on the bottom which allows for any fecal matter to be transferred away from their delicate feathers and relieves pressure on their feet and keel, as they are not used to being on hard surfaces.

On a bright, sunny summer day, this young murrelet was released along the rocky shores of Vancouver Island. He hesitated for just a minute before flying off with a long, strong flight out to sea and then disappeared quickly in the small waves of the ocean.

“With the population declines of the Marbled murrelet, it is really valuable to have even one returned to the wild,” says Wild ARC Assistant Manager Meghan Hatch. “They are adorable little birds with a unique life history – it feels good to do what we can to help them survive.”