Razorbills, Our Wayward Penguins, Are Dying, and No One Knows Why

Last month, seemingly overnight, thousands of razorbills arrived all along the Florida peninsula in what appeared to be a sweeping abandonment of the Northern tundra for something a little nicer. They flocked along Fort Lauderdale's beaches, swimming in the waters of Boynton Beach, delighting bird watchers -- and, finally, dying.

No one knows what's wrong with the birds, which scientists say were blown off course following Hurricane Sandy and missed the Jersey Shore, their normal destination, by more than 1,000 miles. Dozens of them have been rushed to animal shelters like Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota.

Perhaps the warm weather is killing them, suggests David Pilston, CEO of Save Our Seabirds. Or maybe tropical fish just aren't appetizing? "The ones we've seen die in a couple of weeks," Pilston said. "We don't know why they can't survive down here. In all likelihood, all of these birds will die, and it's very sad. There's nothing we can do except relocate them back to where they belong, which is, unfortunately, just something we can't do. Somebody took a big-time wrong turn."

And more could be making that same wrong turn soon, Pilston says.

The most reliable way of tracking the birds, it turns out, is social media. Twitter and other social networking sites have been swarming with razorbill news.

"It was so fun to watch the razorbill swim and dive," wrote Lilian Stokes on her blog, Birding Is Fun! Then: "We were very saddened when we found a dead razorbill on the beach."

It's actually not uncommon for birds to lose their way during migration, according to birding literature, and when they do, they become "vagrant birds." Several factors can contribute : weather, inexperience, and wandering for wandering's sake.

Far removed from its natural habitat, the vagrant bird is skittish. And who's to blame the razorbill for a bit of trepidation? They're dying of an unknown sickness.

Some Florida vacation.

Follow the writer @terrence_mccoy.

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Terrence McCoy