Why are Great Lakes birds dying from botulism?

Dec 17, 2013

The common loon
The common loon
Credit Steve Maslowski/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Imagine walking down a picturesque beach along Lake Michigan, and stumbling upon the carcasses of dead birds. That’s a very real and unpleasant problem along Lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Erie. (It’s not as big of an issue in Lake Superior because of the lake’s colder water temperatures.)

Loons and other deep-diving birds are suffering from a disease called avian botulism. It’s form of food poisoning that kills wild birds in the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The U.S. Geological Survey explains that “avian botulism is a paralytic disease caused by ingestion of a toxin produced by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum.”

Microbiologist David Blehert is with the USGS’s National Wildlife Health Center and he’s trying to figure out the scope of the problem, why it’s happening, and how to fix it.  Here’s our conversation.