ELBERTA — Jesse Larsen has seen young sea gulls die off from dehydration before, but never like this year.
"There's more this year than the last couple of years," The heavy equipment operator at Bay View Landfill said. "They don't learn to fly quick enough."
Made famous more than 150 years ago when they saved early Utah settlers from an invasion of crickets, the young California gulls died off at a high rate during last weekend's heat when temperatures broke the century mark.
Their bodies were scattered from behind the landfill to U-68.
"The boss had us pick them up," he said. The crew picked up as many as 300. Since then, the die-off has slowed, Larsen said.
The rookery behind the landfill numbers in the thousands of live birds, while hundreds more circle overhead.
"It's an easy 10,000, maybe more," he said. "I'll bet it's doubled in size from last year."
The birds probably left their nests too early, a U.S. Fish and Game biologist says. The state Division of Wildlife Resources has investigated the die-off, a DWR worker said.
The die-off is a natural consequence of the distance from the rookery to water, the heat and fences, biologist Bruce Waddell said. Utah Lake is three to four miles away. Some of the gulls are mature enough to fly short stretches, but many simply walk away from the nest.
"Normally they get their water in their food," he said. "They're getting dehydrated and dying. They can't survive away from the adults."
Hundreds of young gulls were found dead or dying last weekend a few miles north of this south Utah County town, Waddell said.
"I've never been called in on one like this," he said.
Carcasses were sent to the National Wildlife Health Laboratory in Madison, Wis., where initial tests found no obvious diseases, he said.
Waddell and other researchers found the large nesting area earlier in the week.
The young birds that died "were probably leaving the nest a little early," Waddell said Friday.
The gulls are still coming up against the back fence of the landfill and following it around, he said.
"If anyone is sensitive to misery, these birds have it."