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Seagulls getting sick and dying

Save Our Seabirds staff hopes necropsies on two deceased laughing gulls will provide answer about cause of illness affecting birds on Siesta and Lido keys

By Rachel Brown Hackney
SarasotaNewsLeader.com

As of Oct. 9, more than 40 seagulls in Sarasota and Manatee counties had died as a result of poisoning, the senior hospital technician with the nonprofit Save Our Seabirds told SNL.

Beginning in late September, the avian rescue and rehabilitation organization on City Island began treating birds found mostly on Siesta Key, but also on Lido Key, Save our Seabirds staff reported.

As of Oct. 9, 25 deaths had been confirmed among laughing gulls that inhabited an area near Anna Maria Island, Jonathan Hande, the Save Our Seabirds senior hospital technician, said.

On Oct. 4, Rachel Pettit, avian hospital technician at Save Our Seabirds, told SNL in a telephone interview that the initial cases involved juvenile and yearling laughing gulls. On Oct. 9, Hande reported, “We’re seeing a pretty bigger range” of ages, including adults.

Pettit reported that the birds brought to Save Our Seabirds were suffering with severe dehydration and lethargy.

Hande said he suspected botulism as the poison affecting the gulls.

“Botulism is … in our environment at all times,” he explained, including the soil.

“Clostridium botulinum is ubiquitously present in the environment in soils, dust, and the marine and freshwater sediments of wetlands, rivers, and lakes,” a 2014 paper published by Frontiers in Microbiology says. “Spores in soil may be mobilized by surface waters in heavy rain, or dust carried away by wind (Long and Tauscher, 2006),” the paper adds.

The gulls could have become sick from eating substances they found on the ground, Hande told the SNL.

Botulism is highly contagious, he stressed. “Once it gets into one animal, it can spread pretty rapidly.”

The staff of Save Our Seabirds is hoping that necropsies on two laughing gulls will solve the riddle and offer guidance on medication and treatment to save future victims, Dana Leworthy, avian hospital administrator at the City Island nonprofit, told the News Leader in an Oct. 17 update.

Earlier that week, Leworthy said, Save Our Seabirds staff sent a couple of deceased laughing gulls to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for testing.

Asked how long she expected to wait on the results, Leworthy replied, “I don’t know.” She added that she hoped it would not take more than a couple of weeks.

Leworthy concurred with Pettit that “It couldn’t be red tide,” because “it’s only affecting one species. It’s pretty weird.”

Leworthy estimated that another four or five ill birds had been brought to Save Our Seabirds since Oct. 9. At least, she noted, the number had been decreasing.

When Pettit spoke with SNL on Oct. 4, she said the gulls she was treating “seem to be having an issue standing, [feeding] and preening themselves.”

Staff members give the sick birds “a lot of fluids,” she pointed out. They flush the gulls’ systems with saline and electrolytes. She likened the treatment to the medial response for a person who has suffered food poisoning. The goal is “to reset everything” in the bodily functions, she added.

Siesta Key Association members alerted to the issue

A Save Our Seabirds volunteer brought the issue of the sick gulls to the attention of Siesta Key Association (SKA) members during their October meeting.

Dave Thomas, who told SNL he became certified in bird rescues about two years ago, asked Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, if Smith or other officers had noticed any signs of pesticide use or unusual activity near the beach between the blocks of 5900 and 6200 Midnight Pass Road. “We’re seeing a lot of toxic seagulls,” Thomas added.

“Not that I’ve heard of,” Smith replied.

At that point, Thomas said, neither researchers at Save Our Seabirds nor Mote Marine Laboratory had any what might be causing the illness.

“[The poisoning] seems to be specific to the laughing gulls,” Thomas told the SKA members. “The other shore birds are not being affected, as far as we can tell.”

SKA Director Erin Kreis asked Thomas if he could contact the managers of the condominium complexes in the areas where the birds had been found, to ask if the managers were doing anything different that might be having an effect on the birds.

“Very often, it’s the managers of the properties that call us,” Thomas replied.

So far, he continued, none of them had reported any changes in maintenance or other activities.

Usually, he continued, he has rescued one bird at a time. However, that morning, he was called to help three in a group.

The gulls rescued on Siesta Key have been found in three locations, Thomas reported: Point of Rocks, on the southern part of Siesta Beach; the area near the 6000 block of Midnight Pass Road; and the vicinity of the lifeguard stations on the public beach. He had not received any reports of sick birds on the northernmost part of the beach, he pointed out.

During the SKA meeting, Thomas asked that anyone who finds a sick bird call 388-3010, which is the number for Save Our Seabirds. The nonprofit will dispatch someone trained to collect the bird, he said. However, he asked that the person stay with the bird, if at all possible, after making the call.

Gulls and other birds will move, even if they are sick, he pointed out. If the caller leaves the scene, Thomas said, the rescuer might have difficulty trying to locate the bird.

Save Our Seabirds is located at 1708 Ken Thompson Parkway in Sarasota.

The nonprofit’s website explains that its mission is “to rescue, rehabilitate, and release sick and injured wild birds while educating our community about preventing injuries and preserving habitats.”