The waterfowl being found dead or dying near Western New York’s frozen lakes and rivers aren’t sick and they didn’t freeze to death, local bird experts say, although the cold weather is responsible for what is killing them.
“They were starved,” said Connie Adams, senior wildlife biologist at the Department of Environmental Conservation.
After getting several reports of ducks in distress since January, Adams was able to collect 83 birds from the ice in Dunkirk Harbor recently – just a sample of the hundreds there that had died – and had them examined by DEC pathologists.
“Many of them were less than half the weight they should have been,” Adam said. “There were no disease issues, no parasites. They had no fat reserves, no muscle mass.”
The majority of the birds collected were red-breasted mergansers and greater scaup, ducks whose small mouths, or gapes, can only take in equally small fish, the minnows that live in shallower waters – waters that have been frozen solid for weeks or months.
Most winters, the ebb and flow of temperatures opens up enough water to attract and keep hundreds of thousands of birds in Western New York and Southern Ontario. Tom Kerr, a naturalist with the Buffalo Audubon Society, leads regular winter walks for bird-watchers, and this year has been no different, except for the extreme cold.
“So many birds come so far to winter here, because of the open water,” Kerr said. “And once they are here, when the water freezes, there’s not really anywhere else they can go.”
Although Lake Erie is largely frozen over, open water remains on the Niagara River, and the much deeper waters of Lake Ontario are largely open.
“But there’s only so much food available,” Kerr said, “and with so much ice it’s harder and harder for the birds to find it.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t much bird lovers can do to help them in the wild.
“These birds aren’t like mallards; they wouldn’t eat bread,” Kerr said. “They eat fish. If you went out and tried to feed them, you would probably just attract a lot of gulls.”
Adams agreed. “The only way to remedy this situation is for spring to come and fish to become available, and even then it will be too late for many,” she said. “There is nothing we can do but document it.”
One result of the situation is that starving birds are being found, still alive, and taken to wildlife rehabilitators for help. Their chances of survival are better but still touchy.
“It’s really on its last legs if the bird will let you catch it,” Adams said.
Marianne Hites, a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator for Messinger Woods, is caring for several ducks now, including several greater scaup, red-necked grebe and a goldeneye.
“It’s not just a matter of putting food in a bowl,” Hites said. “We feed them fish, but we feed them through a tube. They are not putting weight on easily, they are so hungry.”
And there is another problem, she said,
“They also don’t have their waterproofing. They become so debilitated, they are literally falling from the sky, and these birds can’t take off from land,” she said.
“Their feathers collect dirt and they lose their waterproofing, which also keeps them warm, so they get even weaker.”
To restore their feathers, the birds get bathed with Dawn dishwashing liquid.
“And there’s the other problem: We can’t release them until there’s a warm-up,” Hites said. “As long as there is ice, they still won’t be able to eat.”
Anyone who finds a live bird is encouraged to take it to Messinger Woods, Hawk Creek or the SPCA, where dozens are being treated. It helps, buts it’s a drop in the bucket.
Bird-watcher Joanne Goetz of Fredonia posted on a local bird-watching site over the weekend that, at Dunkirk Harbor where the dead ducks were found, “I counted 35 bald eagles on the ice and flying. ... I enjoyed watching about 10 of them lifting off the ice and circling over the harbor.”
The eagles were there to eat the dead ducks.
Adams said it is too early to tell how much of an impact the bird die-off will have on the duck populations. She did point out that the ducks her office examined are generally considered game birds and none is rare for the area. That could be a good sign.
Kerr also is hopeful.
“This time of year, we are still seeing huge numbers of waterfowl and gulls in the Niagara River and near the lakes,” he said. “Most will make it.”