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Red Tide Affects Seabird Species Differently

Seabird specialists say that toxic red tide blooms in the Gulf of Mexico affect every species differently. Some shore birds are affected later than others.

Just recently a flood of cormorants and pelicans have been brought in to the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, although red tide has been dissipating off Pinellas County.

Melissa Dollard is director of the hospital at the sanctuary. She says poisoned birds started being admitted around August.

"So we went from those smaller shore birds to gulls, terns, 'cause they eat everything so they're usually one of the first birds that we see. And then now we're into cormorants and pelicans," said Dollard.

She doesn't know what this pattern means, but she said she has noticed it.

Dollard said seabirds usually get red tide in their systems by eating toxic fish. It affects their central nervous system, so she said they look almost drunk.

"They'll be stumbling falling into roads, sometimes walking into stores, you know, definitely swimming in hotel pools, and things like that because they're just kind of really confused they don't know where they are," said Dollard.

She said the severity of a seabird's condition depends on how much and how long it's been exposed to red tide.

The Seaside Seabird Sanctuary recently released about 20 birds back into the gulf-- many of them were rehabilitated after being poisoned by red tide. 

Watch seabirds fly back into the Gulf after recovering from red tide: 


Mildred Ceron, of St. Petersburg, was out on the beach at Indian Shores to watch healed pelicans, cormorants, and gulls set free on a weekday morning.

She said she experienced the red tide at one point-- the smell and irritation.

"It sort of broke our hearts to see so many fish and birds and other mammals in the water perished because of it," said Ceron. 

But she said she feels better after seeing the healthy seabirds take off from the shore and fly out to the water.

"Oh, it's great. It feels like vindication," said Ceron.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.