Niagara Gazette

April 3, 2014

Wildlife rehabber said hundreds of dead birds might have been saved

Wildlife rehabilitator: Hundreds of dead birds might have been saved

By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A wildlife rehabilitator says that hundreds of ducks found dead in area waterways since the last winter storm might have been saved through a concentrated volunteer effort.

Timothy O’Day, founder of the Campbell Environmental Center in Boston, N.Y., and a biology teacher at Medaille College, said he and his students and volunteers have been gathering the bodies of the dead ducks since the last winter storm mid-March.  

“It’s a mess,” said O’Day. “We’re talking conservatively that a couple thousand birds are dead from Dunkirk to Beaver Island.”

The situation is complicated, due, he believes, to global warming which he said increases precipitation and thus, creates more snow; but the cause of the duck deaths is fairly easy to determine. 

“Most of the die-off has occurred because of starvation,” he said. “Most of the birds have lost over 50 percent of their weight.” Other ducks were found frozen in the lakes and waterways, too weak or unable to fly, he added.   

O’Day spoke Tuesday on a dock overlooking a creek at Buckhorn State Park on Grand Island, where one of his volunteers had rescued a dying duck last week. The volunteer, Ryan Walters of Angola, a biology student at Buffalo State College, was able to trap a female greater scaup who was trying to make her way back the water but was too weak to move. Though the duck has being cared for since it’s rescue, it has lost much muscle mass and O’Day is not hopeful about its survival.

The largest population of ducks to be impacted were fish eating ducks called red-breasted mergansers, which require open water to fly off after a landing. With the lakes 90 percent frozen, the open water and fishing areas were dangerously limited, O’Day said. 

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is currently examining samples from dead birds collected by the Buffalo office. 

“We’ve been opening up all the birds,” said Joe Okoniewski, a biologist in the wildlife health unit of the DEC near Albany. “For the most part they’re empty,” he said of the bird’s stomachs, indicating a death from starvation. Okoniewski hopes to have a report finished on his research by the end of April.   

O’Day estimated that about six species of duck were impacted, destroying about 7 percent of the local duck population, including non-fish eaters such as the greater scaup, which subsists on shell fish such as mollusk and snails. 

While there is nothing much more that can be done for the duck population this season, O’Day believes that a mobilized group of volunteers might have been able to help prevent the duck devastation. “This winter, the alarm never went out,” he said, noting that if the same situation were to occur in a future winter, fast action could save hundreds of birds. “We would need large groups to gather the ducks so they could be treated,” he said. 

O’Day wishes for a wider environmental awareness of the waterfowl, which he says draws bird watchers from around the world.  

“We should be showcasing the waterfowl,” he noted. “There could be a whole industry created to advocate and protect these animals.”

In the meantime, the ice has begun to clear on the local waters and is unlikely to refreeze, according to a spokesperson from the National Weather Service, who said this winter was ranked the 18th coldest over the past 140 years. 

Bill Hibbert, a meteorologist with the Buffalo office of the National Weather Service, said that although there could be more early spring snow, it would be near impossible for the area waterways to freeze again this season. 

“Lake ice requires cold air and long cold nights,” he explained. “The nights are now shorter than the days and there is a higher sun angle during the days, causing a warmer surface on the water.”