DNR workers, helpers collect duck carcasses

March 04, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

CHOPTANK RIVER -- Larry Manokey leaned over the starboard side of the small fiberglass boat and grabbed at something floating in the cold water.

"That's how we find most of them," he said, lifting the sodden carcass to reveal the torn flesh and exposed bones of an oldsquaw duck. "Their breasts are eaten out."

Killed by highly infectious avian cholera and then partially eaten by scavengers, ducks are washing ashore by the thousands around the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia. The waterfowl die-off appears to be concentrated in the two-state area, but dead ducks have now been recovered as far south as the coast of North Carolina.

"It's real widespread," said Larry Hindman, Maryland's migratory bird program specialist. "I have no indication that mortality has dropped off."

Now in its second week, the disease continues to threaten the 1 million waterfowl that spend winters on the bay and the waterways that feed it.

Government employees and volunteers in Maryland and Virginia have recovered more than 7,600 carcasses around the bay since an outbreak of the disease was suspected when dead oldsquaws were spotted in Eastern Bay along Talbot and Queen Anne's counties.

The disease appears to have struck hardest at oldsquaws and other deep-diving ducks, although sea gulls have been dying as well.

The disease is not considered to be a high-risk problem for humans and other mammals. Neither does it appear to be an immediate threat to the hundreds of thousands of chickens of the Delmarva Peninsula's poultry industry.

Because avian cholera is transmitted from bird to bird through ingestion of food or contaminated water, signs that the dead ducks are being eaten by predators -- including other birds -- worry wildlife officials.

"It is a concern, but there's not much we can do about it," Mr. Hindman said.

Teams of state Department of Natural Resource workers like Mr. Manokey and Paul Brinsfield, who scoured the banks of the Choptank River Tuesday, are collecting the carcasses in a time-consuming, but important, effort to keep the bacteria from spreading inland to other bird populations.

Collecting carcasses is a cold, mundane task for the 25 to 30 people involved. Tuesday's search, for example, was hampered by low tide and a collar of ice that stretched 75 yards in some places along the eastern side of the Chesapeake.

A few birds were bagged in Dorchester County Tuesday, although a winter storm kept most crews on land.

"A lot of the birds are encapsulated in ice, and that makes recovery difficult," Mr. Hindman said.

As Mr. Brinsfield and Mr. Manokey walked along a deserted Dorchester County beach near the mouth of the Choptank River, they passed scores of tiny prints made in the sand by raccoons, gulls and other scavengers that feed on the duck carcasses.

Whenever they came upon a dead duck, they picked it up and dropped it into a plastic garbage bag. The carcasses -- 10 to a bag -- are delivered each day to the state Department of Agriculture's Animal Health Laboratory in Salisbury where they are incinerated.

"There's nothing glamorous about this," Mr. Manokey said.

The men bagged 11 ducks in two hours. A day earlier, they had found 50 birds in the same area. The previous Friday they picked up 147. Winds apparently shifted Monday night, and dead birds probably washed up on other shores.

Mr. Brinsfield, a DNR worker for 30 years, said the current outbreak reminded him of the 1978 die-off. "We picked up ducks for a couple of weeks," he said. "I don't think we scratched the surface -- then or now."

Mr. Hindman said reconnaissance flights from the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center in St. Mary's County are helping in the search for large numbers of carcasses. The die-off, he said, may not affect many birds north of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge because most sea ducks spend winter in the lower portions of the Chesapeake.

Although avian cholera can infect chickens, Mr. Hindman said there is no evidence to show that the disease has spread inland to chicken farms.

"It's possible, but it's a long shot," he said. "In past outbreaks, we've never seen a link between this disease and the poultry population."

He said the Delmarva poultry industry has been alerted to the disease and is communicating with the state agriculture department.

Avian cholera is unrelated to avian influenza, a virus that periodically kills poultry.

Similar avian cholera outbreaks occurred in the Chesapeake Bay three times in the past 24 years. More than 50,000 birds died in 1970 and in 1978.

The cholera, which is caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida, was confirmed early last week at the state agricultural laboratory in Salisbury. Scientists believe the disease is activated during severe winters.

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