Friday, January 16, 2009

Everybody’s Gulls, Everybody’s Problem

everybody's gulls everybody's problem
from a news article in the Racine, Wisconsin Journal Times, "Everybody’s gulls, everybody’s problem," by David Steinkraus, Jan 14, 2009

Geese and gulls, they are hard to escape. No one likes walking where the geese have taken over a lawn or beach, but now there is proof that the gulls might actually be more unsanitary.

Studies in Wisconsin have shown that bacteria counts which can close beaches are linked to gulls. After DNA analysis, and a lot of further study the conclusion is that gulls not only carry germs that are specific to themselves, but also germs that can cause disease in humans.

The December issue of the Canadian Journal of Microbiology reports that from 2004-2006, there were 724 samples of gull feces collected from Racine, and 226 samples from Milwaukee. They examined the samples and found the bacteria which cause salmonella, campylobacter and pleisiomonas. All of these cause fever, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Cryptosporidium and giardia were not found.

The Health Department has reported no increase in intestinal diseases where the samples were collected, but there is no question that the gull feces increases the bacteria count in shallow waters. When water quality is tested under the US EPA standards the tests do not discriminate between bacteria which can infect humans and those which can only infect birds. This standard, set in 1986 is set to be replaced by a new rule in 2012. The distinction between different bacteria is being considered for the new standard.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there is a different number of organisms which must be ingested by a human for different diseases to cause an infection. Salmonella can be contracted with a dose of as few as 15-20 bacteria. For Pleisiomonas over a million organisms must be ingested to create a problem.

Ring-billed gulls are the most common on the Great Lakes. Single birds can range for hundreds of miles. Gulls from Chicago were found 130 miles north in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in southern Illinois, and even in New York state. Great Lakes Gulls do tend to be a regional population, but their movement within that region shows that no one can say that a problem with gull-carried bacteria in one county will remain in that county.

Cook County (Chicago) estimates that they have 35,000 gull nests, and believes that the estimate is low. Just to the north, Lake County was plagued with beach closings, with 5000 gulls that “hang out on the beach,” said a biologist for the Health Department. When the gulls were convinced to move elsewhere the closings decreased.

Reducing the number of open trash containers, and encouraging people to not feed the gulls have helped. Another technique is to change the way the beach is groomed so that the sun can reach more interstices between sand grains to kill bacteria. One beach hired a dog handler to bring in a border collie to harass the birds. The dogs patrols made the greatest difference, reducing closings by 91% in one case.

One official said that without some kind of regional initiative the problem will not be brought under control.

Check the E. coli count at any monitored beach at the DEQ web site
These links are checked on the date of the article. As the article ages, some links may become invalid

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