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Culture of clostridium botulinum, which produces the botulism toxins. Photo courtesy of Larry Stauffer, Oregon State Public Health Laboratory. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
Culture of clostridium botulinum, which produces the botulism toxins. Photo courtesy of Larry Stauffer, Oregon State Public Health Laboratory. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Botulism kills hundreds of loons in Lake Ontario

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Type E Botulism, a disease caused by a toxic bacteria, is back in Lake Ontario. And over the last month or so, it's killed several hundred loons, ducks and other birds.

Type E Botulism has triggered annual bird kills in several Great Lakes since the late 1990s. But they've been largely minor on Lake Ontario for the last seven years. That is until residents around Henderson Harbor and Ellisburg in Jefferson County started calling the DEC in late October.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

"I got several calls, several emails, people contacting me when I see them on the street, just saying Irene, there’s a dead loon here, a dead loon there," says Irene Mazzocchi, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Environmental Conservation in Watertown. "Pretty sad to see all these dead bodies along the shoreline, especially the common loons that are migrating through."

Mazzocchi and her staff scooped up 200 to 300 dead common loons, as well as long-tailed ducks, grebes, and gulls. She says the disease is spread by invasive species, like quagga mussels and the round goby, "The bacteria, the botulism bacteria, is naturally in the sediment of the lake, and when the gobies feed on this, they build up the toxin." And then birds eat the gobies or mussels.

Nina Schoch, who coordinates the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, says, "Loons and other migrating birds are migrating through and they’re hungry and they’re tired, and they come down on the lakes to rest and eat and they see these fish that are easy to catch, and then the botulism is a very quick-acting toxin"

Schoch says most of these loons were migrating south from Canada. She says botulism has killed thousands of common loons since the 2000. And it’s considered a big factor in why breeding loon populations are declining in Canada,

"It has to be having an impact on the population of the Canadian birds," says Schoch.

The DEC says the botulism outbreak doesn’t threaten drinking water supplies. But the DEC’s Mazzochi says it can be toxic to people or animals who touch or eat the dead birds, "I don’t think we have much control in stopping Botulism E, but we do have control as far as preventing it from spreading to other species, so if any other bird, like a bald eagle, or if someone was walking a dog, and they ingested the meat, they also too could get Botulism E."

The DEC says residents who find a dead bird can bury or bag it, using gloves, or call their local DEC office. In Jefferson County contact the DEC at 315-785-2263; in Oswego or Cayuga counties contact 607-753-3095.

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