Saturday, 19 February 2011

Peculiar geese deaths baffle wildlife officials

Ailment afflicting birds around Lake Erie

Several dozen Canada geese along western Lake Erie's shoreline have recently died or are presumed dead while others have become so sick they cannot hold up their heads, fly, or maintain control of their motor functions.

State wildlife investigators are stumped, awaiting word on tests that a national wildlife laboratory in Wisconsin has been doing on some of the dead birds.

"They will fall out of the sky and have trouble staying upright," said Dave Sherman, a biologist at the Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station the Ohio Department of Natural Resources operates in Ottawa County.

Symptoms began manifesting themselves first with mallards about two or three weeks ago.

"Now, it's mostly geese we're seeing," he said.

The bulk of the problem appears to be in the Oregon area, Mr. Sherman said, in the vicinity of open water near FirstEnergy Corp.'s coal-fired Bay Shore power plant, where birds typically congregate this time of year.

The plant's warm-water discharge often keeps that part of the lake from freezing.

But the problems are not limited to that area.

Mr. Sherman said some of the sick or dead geese have been found as far east as Vermilion, Ohio, which is halfway between Sandusky and Cleveland.

Four were recently found on a thawed part of the Maumee River near downtown Perrysburg.

Cody Klima, Ohio DNR wildlife officer, said he has picked up about two dozen goose carcasses over the past couple of weeks.

He also said he's taken that many sick birds or more to Nature's Nursery in Whitehouse and Back to the Wild in Castalia, Ohio, two facilities that attempt to rehabilitate injured wildlife.

Officials at those facilities have not had much success with this outbreak.

Many of the sick, injured, or dead geese are inaccessible because warming temperatures have made the ice too dangerous to traverse.

"I'm guessing some of them are drowning," Mr. Klima said. "They lose their coordination and flip upside down."

He said he has been getting about a dozen calls a day from area residents reporting new sightings or seeking answers about birds they've seen.

"They're throwing their heads back. They're losing all balance and literally almost all back-somersault and have a seizure," according to Laura Zitzelberger, operations director at Nature's Nursery. At least eight or nine of about a dozen geese that were brought to Nature's Nursery either died or had to be euthanized.

Two ducks and one of the geese that exhibited symptoms appear to have recovered. Another goose is struggling, she said.

At Back to the Wild, 18 of 23 geese dropped off for treatment have died, nearly all within the past three days, said Sarah Langdon, Back to the Wild supervisor.

Of the remaining five, three are "acting like normal geese again" and may be released soon, she said.

Seventeen of those 23 injured birds were brought in from the Bay Shore plant area, she said.

Chris Barry, a Perrysburg engineer, said he has seen three carcasses and a sick goose on the Perrysburg side of the Maumee River since Saturday. He said they were only 20 to 30 feet from the shore, but the ice was too dangerous to walk on.

"They're at the edge of the ice," Mr. Barry said, referring to an area near Water and Pine streets in Perrysburg.

The sick bird "was floating in a tiny patch of open water," Mr. Barry said.

"It didn't have much strength left," he said.

Anyone who sees geese acting strangely can contact the Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station at 419-898-0960 or the ODNR office in Findlay.

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