PAWS rescuers scramble to save seabirds covered in algae

LYNNWOOD — Stressed-out seabirds and exhausted naturalists have been crowded into a room here for the past five days.

The staff at the Progressive Animal Welfare Society Wildlife Center is playing a small role in a major event as it tries to save the birds’ lives.

The birds were slimed by a coastal algae bloom off the Oregon and Washington coasts last week. About 700 were sent to care facilities along the West Coast. Thousands more may have died, according to the International Bird Rescue Research Center in California.

The PAWS staff has been working 14-hour days to feed and clean the Western grebes, common murres, red-throated loons and common loons.

The recovery process will be expensive, time-consuming and a bit dangerous for birds and people alike, but that didn’t deter PAWS, a hospital for wild animals.

“It’s who we are; it’s what we do,” said Annette Laico, executive director at PAWS. “When the authorities ask us to respond to an emergency event like this, whenever we’re capable of doing it, we certainly respond.”

The birds, about the size of large ducks or small geese, live in coastal waters and are poorly adapted to the land. Typically, they waterproof themselves by locking their feathers together. The algae, however, slid between their feathers and prevented that.

Exposed to frigid water and losing their ability to float, the birds were at risk of hypothermia, and so they beached themselves.

Hundreds were scooped up and sent to a facility in Astoria, Ore., overwhelming its volunteer staff. About 500 were then moved to California and another 100 to PAWS’ Lynnwood operation.

As the birds arrived here, the staff at PAWS went into overdrive, building pens and setting up sheltered pools.

Now, the birds are being fed about every two hours, a process where two-person teams work through 20 pens and 10 pools.

One worker drapes a towel over a bird, hugging it to keep its wings flat. Another threads a tube down its throat to give it a re-hydrating solution or fish slurry — blended smelt with nutrient powder.

“It sounds disgusting, but it meets the birds’ needs pretty well,” said Kevin Mack, a PAWS naturalist.

Everyone is mindful of the birds’ sharp beaks. Mack has tender red scratches on his forearms from a brush with one bird. Everyone carries protective eye wear.

“These are to keep our eyes intact,” Mack said.

The most emaciated birds may take about a month to recover, during which the nonprofit center will ring up a big bill, according to Laico.

The facility already has used its emergency store of fish. It ordered another 1,100 pounds this week. Water for the pools, fed by a fire hydrant, may lead to a $10,000 utility bill.

Those costs could stress the center. The care itself stresses the birds.

Mack said the birds’ immune systems have been sapped from the anxiety of being so close to people. About 30 have died or been euthanzied.

The alternative — leaving them in the wild — would have been no less lethal. The birds likely would have sat on the beach, starving or freezing.

Mack said the cause of the algae bloom hasn’t been determined. It may have been brought to the Northwest by ships from Asia.

Since human involvement may have caused the situation, caring for the birds was the only option, Mack said.

“It’s really a humane response,” he said.

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, arathbun@heraldnet.com.

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