For several years now, a strain of botulism has been killing shorebirds along parts of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Lake Huron. Tens of thousands of birds have died on Lake Erie in the last several years. But there’s one place where some sick birds are taken to be nursed back to health. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
For several years now, a strain of botulism has been killing shorebirds along parts of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Lake Huron. Tens of thousands of birds have died on Lake Erie in the last several years. But, there’s one place where some sick birds are taken to be nursed back to health. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
(Sound of an engine)
We’re crawling along sand dunes in a three-wheeled cart. Ray Bierbower is taking me to Gull Point. It’s an area on a spit of land called Presque Isle that juts out into Lake Erie at Erie, Pennsylvania. This area is part of a state park that gets four million visitors every year. But here, except for birds, it’s deserted.
“A lot of the shorebirds come through here, migrating, and they want to leave it alone. It’s shut off to the public. Basically, there’s just a select few that are allowed out in this area and we’re one of the groups that are allowed.”
We’re here to pick up some dead birds. A couple of years ago you might have found dozens of dead birds at a time. Today, only five seagulls. Well, parts of them: two heads and some rotting carcasses.
“We haven’t been out here for two weeks. So, this is not too bad considering before.”
If these birds are like hundreds of others tested, they died from botulism poisoning. Researchers are figuring out how the botulism got into the food chain. The theory is that massive beds of zebra mussels and quagga mussels – both invasive species brought into the Great Lakes in the ballast water of ocean going ships – are causing conditions that rob oxygen on the bottom of the Lakes.
That encourages botulism bacteria to flourish and give off toxins. The mussels aren’t hurt by them, but round gobies, another invasive species, eat the mussels. When they get sick, they become easy pickings for the birds. Then, the birds get sick.
Sometimes, Ray Bierbower and his fellow summer interns find a bird that’s sick, but not beyond saving. The state park doesn’t have the facilities to help the birds, so they take them to a wild bird rehabilitation center in town.
The center, called Wild Wings is looks like some of the other two story houses in this blue-collar neighborhood. But once you’re inside, there’s no doubt that you’re in the right place.
(Sound of birds)
A man is dropping off four tiny wrens from the nest. Their mother stopped coming to feed them and he figures a cat must have killed her.
Wild Wing’s director, Wendy Campbell, takes them in. She’s a whirlwind of activity as she flits from cage to cage. She makes sure birds have water. She gives some of them medicine. And now with the tiny wrens here she makes sure they don’t miss feeding time.
In the basement, chickens, crows, an owl, and some pigeons are separated by chicken wire walls. She checks on a couple of seagulls in one the pens. Campbell is helping them recover from botulism poisoning.
“What you do is provide them with supportive care. You want to keep the birds out of sunlight, because sunlight perpetuates botulism toxin. And by re-fluiding them, because they’re usually dehydrated. And a lot of times, too, we can use Phillips Milk of Magnesia because that binds with botulism toxin and draws it out of their system. And many of the birds recover.”
Campbell says after she’s sure they’re fully recovered, she’ll release these gulls back into the wild.
“There’s no danger of them spreading it, because I’ve asked the Wildlife Health Center to make sure that I could release these birds that have recovered from botulism that they weren’t now going to be carrying it. And he said absolutely not. It’s out of their system.”
Wendy Campbell is quick to add that it doesn’t mean that the gulls can’t contract the botulism toxin again. Campbell says if this were a natural phenomenom, she would let nature take its course. But it’s not; humans brought the zebra mussels and quagga mussels that are causing the problem in the Great Lakes.
“Over ninety percent of the time, it’s as a result of human activities. We don’t believe in interfering with nature. But when they get hurt because they get hit by a car or they get poisoned by lawn care chemicals, that’s not nature. And so, somebody has to help them, and that’s why I do this.”
Campbell says the authorities in her area are doing a good job of cleaning up the bird carcasses along the lake beaches. If they’re not picked up, flies lay eggs, maggots are infected by botulism, and other birds eat the maggots, causing the botulism problem to spread.
Campbell says of the one thousand birds brought into Wild Wings center each year, only a handful of them are sick from botulism. That’s because most of them die from it before they can be helped.
For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.