Publication Date July 14, 2017

A Mystery of Seabirds, Blown Off Course and Starving

United States

Hundreds of shearwaters arrived dying and dead on shores around New York City. Scientists suspect weather patterns altered by climate change.


Joe Okoniewski, a wildlife pathologist with the New York State Department of Conservation, performs necropsies on small numbers of seabird specimens that wash up dead along the coastal parts of the state. The birds are usually lone adults or juveniles that strayed too close to shore.

This summer Mr. Okoniewski has already examined more than 20 dead birds, while twice that many are awaiting necropsies. All are the same species of agile seabird called great shearwaters, and all washed up emaciated on Long Island beaches last month in a mass mortality event that scientists say is extraordinary for the region.

Now Mr. Okoniewski and others are hoping the unusually large number of carcasses can provide clues into the mysterious lives of these birds, which are considered good indicators of the health of the world’s oceans.


The vast expanses of the ocean remain some of the most vital and hard-to-study environments on the planet. As scientists work to comprehend the scope of climate change, they often look to seabirds to tell stories from the world’s most inaccessible waters. Pelagic birds, which refers to seabirds that spend the majority of their lives at sea and rarely venture to the shore, traverse various regions and climates, are affected by extreme weather patterns and feed on prey exposed to carbon emissions — all while staying relatively observable above the water’s surface.