Northern gannets are good parents. The seabirds mate for life, lay just one egg a year and dutifully feed and protect their chick until it leaves the nest in September.
But this year, thousands of gannets on Newfoundland’s south coast — on North America’s most southern gannet colony — abandoned their nests during the last few weeks of August. Many of the hungry chicks soon began tumbling off rocky cliffs and into the sea.
“It’s shocking,” says Bill Montevecchi, a biologist at Memorial University who describes it as one of the strangest events he has witnessed in his more than 30 years studying the seabirds. But, then, so too was the sea water near the colony that was several degrees Celsius above normal in August and appears to have triggered the abandonment.
It could be a harbinger of things, say scientists at the Audubon Society who have made the bold prediction that climate change could “imperil” nearly half of North America’s birds by the end of the century.
“It’s not so much that the adults are just going to die, but that they’ll not be able to successfully raise enough young to replace themselves over succeeding generations,” says biologist Gary Langham, lead author of Audubon’s grim forecast.