The Aquarium of the Pacific has joined a partnership with the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network and the state to help migrating birds heal from avian botulism.
Dozens of bird species, from the great egret to the northern shoveler, stop at Tulare Lake in Kern County every year during their migratory period.
The lake — the largest west of the Mississippi River — has been historically dry because of California’s ongoing drought. But after the state’s unprecedented rain and snowfall last winter, Tulare Lake has refilled for the first time in 40 years.
The additional water at Tulare Lake has attract millions of waterfowl, shorebirds and other avian species, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. But that, along with stagnant and warmer water, has also created a breeding ground for a naturally occurring, toxin-producing bacteria that can be deadly to birds.
Avian botulism, in particular, thrives in those conditions and becomes concentrated in filter-feeding animals like brine shrimp and fly larvae — which is prime food for many bird species.
Once birds inadvertently ingest the bacteria-ridden creatures, they can become infected with avian botulism. The disease impacts their nervous systems and depending on the severity, can cause paralysis, decreased heart and lung function, and eventually death.
State officials first identified avian botulism at Tulare Lake in mid-June, and launched an emergency response campaign.
The CDFW partnered with UC Davis’ Oiled Wildlife Care Network to construct three mobile rehabilitation facilities, which handled initial care for impacted birds before they could be transferred to off-site wildlife rehabilitation facilities, according to the CDFW.
From August to early September, 1,678 birds died at Tulare Lake, according to a CDFW press release.
But the state’s emergency response and partnership with UC Davis’ Oiled Wildlife Care Network — with Long Beachs’ aquarium now joining on as well — have prevented thousands more additional bird deaths since then.
Aquarium of the Pacific staff members have been helping administer various veterinary services to infected birds, in the hopes of healing them enough to be released back into the wild.
“The main help the birds have needed is to be provided with supportive care and hydration,” the aquarium’s mammal and birds conservation coordinator, Erin Lundy, said in a recent press release. “Our staff have been extremely dedicated to the cause, putting in long hours to help these animals.”
More than 1,200 have been recovered thus far, according to the CDFW, nearly 900 of which have been released back into the wild.
And even more good news — cases of avian botulism have appeared to decline in recent weeks as the temperatures drop now that autumn has arrived. The state has moved out of its emergency response and is now monitoring the situation to ensure cases don’t rise again.
The Aquarium of the Pacific, for its part, has also partnered with OWCN in the past to respond to local wildlife emergencies, including the 2021 elegant tern rescue in the Long Beach Harbor.
“We are proud of this partnership with CDFW and OWCN,” Lundy said, “to help these birds get a chance at recovery and returning to the wild.”