Avian botulism kills off hundreds of loons and other birds

Eleanor Comings, a volunteer for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, has found dozens of dead loons while walking the beach. In the last few days, nearly 300 dead or dying loons and other fish-eating birds have been counted. / DAN RAY/SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE

Nearly 300 loons and other birds have been reported dead along the shores of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The Detroit Free Press today reported that southwest and northwest winds in recent weeks caused the birds to wash ashore.

Botulism first surfaced as a major concern in Lake Michigan in 2006. Biologists explain the surge in botulism deaths this way:  Zebra and quagga mussels filter plankton out of the water causing greater clarity. Sunlight is able to penetrate further and large mats of algae form on the lake bottom. As those mats decay they become depleted of oxygen and bacteria then thrives. The bacteria then accumulates in the mussels which filter the water.

Round gobies feed on those mussels in and around the algae mats and pick up the bacteria. Loons and other fish-eating birds, like cormorants, grebes and gulls pick up the gobies and get poisoned.  Botulism affects the nervous system leaving the birds paralyzed. Scientists believe that many drown. Michigan’s oldest banded loon, The Patriarch, died as part of the mass die-off.

Read more: Avian Botulism 

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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4 Responses to Avian botulism kills off hundreds of loons and other birds

  1. Howard:

    I am devastated by this tragic news about our Michigan Loons.
    I fell in love with them earlier this summer when I photographed them up near Bitely, MI. I published two pieces about them in my blog “Walk With Father Nature”… titled: “Loons of Lilley Lake” and “Loons of Lilley Lake 2” .

    How will this affect the population in Michigan’s inland lakes next breeding season?

    Richard Havenga


  2. Richard: That’s a good question. I’ll be looking into that today. I’ll post more when I know. Thanks for your interest.


  3. Fritz Seegers says:

    I’m sad to say I saw lots of mats of algae on northern part of South Manitou Island last summer. Easily the worse I’ve seen for years. And now this news, as much as it’s not a surprise, it saddens me very much.


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