The Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario is a notable wintering area for waterfowl and, this year, a lot of birds are turning up dead.
After January’s plummeting temperatures, wildlife biologists noticed that dead ducks were numbering in the hundreds, far more than is considered typical winter mortality.
Necropsies were performed and the culprit was identified: ice.
Actually, ice wasn’t the killer but the circumstance that placed the birds in jeopardy. It prevented the wintering waterfowl from finding the aquatic life which is vital to their diet during this time of year. Starvation was the killer.
The bitter weather created ice on 92.2 percent of the Great Lakes, nearly breaking the 1979 record of 94.7 percent.
This type of ice cover hurts the survival chances of lingering diving ducks whose diet consists of small fish and other aquatic life.
There’s evidence some waterfowl tried to fly farther south but were too weak to complete the journey to open water. Dead birds were spotted on shorelines, docks, ice, in snowbanks, and along roadways.
“All have empty stomachs. They’re half the weight they should be,” said Connie Adams, a biologist with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “This is unprecedented. Biologists who’ve worked here for 35 years have never seen anything like this,” she said. “We’ve seen a decline in tens of thousands in our weekly waterfowl counts.”
Adams monitors an area using weekly waterfowl counts, and records indicate that, in just two weeks, the numbers dropped from 240,000 to just 43,000 birds.
While some may have escaped to more temperate areas, it’s certain some didn’t make it. Their carcasses are proof. She personally observed 950 dead ducks.
Most of the affected species are mergansers, scaup, canvasback and grebes; diving ducks that rely on open water for survival. Unlike mallards and other dabbling species, they don’t feed in grain fields but on the aquatic life where they paddle through their days.
“The skin is stuck tight to the body wall because there’s no layer of fat underneath,” said Wildlife biologist Joe Okoniewski. “I’ve seen a couple with stomachs full of feathers and feathers all the way down through their intestines. They’re desperate for anything to eat.”
This type of waterfowl die-off is natural and there’s little that can be done to prevent it.
While some ducks tried escaping southward, a few that were exhausted and near death landed in the hands of wildlife rehabilitators who try to help these lucky ducks survive.
The birds require tube feeding four times daily until strong enough to eat solid foods. They’re then placed in large open water tanks stocked with minnows donated by local bait shops. Each can require nearly 250 small minnows per day.
Once their body weight normalizes and the weather moderates, the birds will be released.
Mother Nature wastes little. Those ducks that didn’t survive became life-saving meals for bald eagles and others scavenging for survival.
Along the Way:
The state Division of Wildlife has modified the hunting regulation proposals that the Wildlife Council will vote on at its next meeting.
Current regulations require that a shotgun used for deer hunting be plugged if it is capable of holding more than three shells. The initial proposal required a magazine plug or inert ammunition to limit capacity for pistol-cartridge rifles.
The amended proposal states that shotguns and pistol-cartridge rifles used for deer hunting can be loaded with no more than three shells in the magazine and chamber combined.
• April 2 and 5: NRA basic pistol class for concealed carry. UCOA, 6943 Marion 243, Findlay. To register: 567-525-4664 or 419-889-9930.
• April 5: Whitetails Unlimited Banquet at the Cube. Doors open at 4 p.m. For tickets, contact 419-422-8451 or 419-422-1182.
• April 8: Tuesday trap league begins, runs for six weeks. UCOA, 6943 Marion 243, Findlay. Contact 419-619-1700.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard, OH 45867-0413 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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