Biologist Joe Kaplan examines the body of "C-3" male loon while surveying bird carnage on the north shore of Lake Michigan.
But C-3 and thousands of other birds succombed to a the deadly Type E botulism on Lake Michigan last autumn. Gulls, mergansers, and loons were among the casualties whose bodies washed up on the shore near Cross Village.
Such massive bird die-offs are not as rare as you might think, but they are never very positive events to witness. Some ecologists believe that the blame lies with invasive species such as zebra mussels and round gobies.
One theory is that mussels, including zebra mussels, filter the botulism toxin from the water in a natural process. But gobies eat the mussels, and birds eat the gobies. Thus the botulism is concentrated and being passed up the food chain.
In 1999, 311 birds in Lake Erie died from the botulism. The next year it was 8,000, and it has remained in the thousands in the Great Lakes every year since. And the problem has spread through the lakes. Lake Michigan was particularly hard hit last year.
Over 50 species of birds are involved, from cormorants who may not be so welcome, to the endangered piping plover. Toxins are not selective killers.
But the loons got the attention of those who see it as a symbol of northern wilderness.
"The die-off also sparked preparations for a sprawling and macabre bird count in 2008 that will involve volunteers combing hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan beaches over the summer and fall — to add up, bury and haul off what are expected to be thousands more poisoned birds and fish."
"We wish we weren’t dealing with this," said Mark Breederland of Michigan Sea Grant.
read the full story at the Buffalo News, "Why Great Lakes birds are dying", by James Janega, Jan 27, 2008
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