Botulism suspected in increasing number of laughing gulls found suffering with lethargy and severe dehydration, mostly on Siesta Beach

Save Our Seabirds senior hospital technician says few of the birds it has treated have been saved

Laughing gulls seem to be the only species affected thus far, Save Our Seabirds staff and volunteers say. Image from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website

As of the middle of this week, more than 40 seagulls in Sarasota and Manatee counties had died as a result of poisoning, the senior hospital technician with the nonprofit Save Our Seabirds told The Sarasota News Leader.

Over the past couple of weeks, the avian rescue and rehabilitation organization on City Island has been treating birds found mostly on Siesta Key, but also on Lido Key, Save our Seabirds staff has reported.

As of Oct. 9, 25 deaths had been confirmed among laughing gulls that inhabited an area near Anna Maria Island, Jonathan Hande, the Save Our Seabirds senior hospital technician, said.

Altogether, Hande added, Save Our Seabirds staff had worked on 18 gulls as of Oct. 5, “13 of which have passed away.” As of the middle of this week, he said, five more cases had been reported on Siesta Key.

On Oct. 4, Rachel Pettit, avian hospital technician at Save Our Seabirds, told the News Leader in a telephone interview that the initial cases involved juvenile and yearling laughing gulls. On Oct. 9, Hande reported, “We’re seeing a pretty bigger range” of ages, including adults.

Pettit told the News Leaderthat the birds brought to Save Our Seabirds were suffering with severe dehydration and lethargy.

Her initial theory, Pettit said, was that — because gulls are scavengers — the younger birds might have been more inclined to eat substances that older, experienced birds would eschew because of the potential harm. For example, she said, older gulls that lived through the red tide bloom last year would be more wary of crabs that were not healthy.

The symptoms of the affected gulls, she continued, were similar to those staff observed in wild birds during the severe red tide bloom that finally subsided early this year. Yet, the only new bloom reported, she noted, has been well south of the Sarasota County shoreline.

In its most recent red tide update prior to the News Leader’s publication of this article, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported on Oct. 9 that a “patchy bloom of the red tide organism, Karenia brevis,” has been observed in Southwest Florida. That notice also said that, over the past week, the algae “was observed at background concentrations in Manatee and Sarasota counties, very low to low concentrations in Lee County, and background to high concentrations in and/or offshore of Collier County.”

On Oct. 9, Hande said, “We’re currently leaning more toward botulism” as the poison affecting the birds.

“Botulism is … in our environment at all times,” he explained, including the soil.

Clostridium botulinum is ubiquitously present in the environment in soils, dust, and the marine and freshwater sediments of wetlands, rivers, and lakes,” a 2014 paper published by Frontiers in Microbiology says. “Spores in soil may be mobilized by surface waters in heavy rain, or dust carried away by wind (Long and Tauscher, 2006),” the paper adds.

On its website, the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains, “C. botulinum is prevalent in soil and marine sediments worldwide, most commonly as spores. These spores are found everywhere. While the spores are generally harmless, the danger can occur once the spores begin to grow out into active bacteria and produce neurotoxins. A neurotoxin is a poisonous chemical that affects the central nervous system. It can destroy, paralyze, or adversely affect nerves or nerve tissue.”

The gulls could have become sick from eating substances they found on the ground, Hande told the News Leader.

Botulism is highly contagious, he stressed. “Once it gets into one animal, it can spread pretty rapidly.”

Rachel Pettit. Image from the Save Our Seabirds website

When Pettit spoke with the News Leader on Oct. 4, she said the gulls she was treating “seem to be having an issue standing, [feeding] and preening themselves.”

“Unfortunately,” she explained, “the only reliable way” to determine the exact cause of the illness is through a blood test. Because of the birds’ dehydration, she said, “We try to avoid [that]. … “They need to keep their blood inside of them,” so they can heal.

Staff members give the sick birds “a lot of fluids,” she pointed out. They flush the gulls’ systems with saline and electrolytes. She likened the treatment to the medial response for a person who has suffered food poisoning. The goal is “to reset everything” in the bodily functions, she added.

Siesta Key Association members alerted to the issue

A Save Our Seabirds volunteer brought the issue of the sick gulls to the attention of Siesta Key Association (SKA) members during their Oct. 3 meeting.

Dave Thomas, who told the News Leader he became certified in bird rescues about two years ago, asked Sgt. Arik Smith, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, if Smith or other officers had noticed any signs of pesticide use or unusual activity near the beach between the blocks of 5900 and 6200 Beach Road. “We’re seeing a lot of toxic seagulls,” Thomas added.

“Not that I’ve heard of,” Smith replied. However, Smith continued, he and deputies had seen gulls that appeared “a little sickly …”

Still, Smith continued, “I haven’t heard of anything that anybody’s doing different” near the beach.

Many of the sick gulls have been found between 5900 and 6200 Midnight Pass Road, especially on the beach near Peppertree Bay Vacation Rentals, Dave Thomas told the SKA members. Siesta Dunes stands at 6200 Midnight Pass Road. Image from Google Maps

Neither researchers at Save Our Seabirds nor Mote Marine Laboratory had any idea at that point, Thomas said, about what might be causing the illness.

Then SKA President Catherine Luckner reported that a person on the beach during the Great American Cleanup on Sept. 21 had approached SKA members about a laughing gull that was fatigued and “just gasping.”

Dave Thomas awaits the start of an SKA meeting in 2016. File photo

“They were able to rehab it,” Thomas told her, referring to the hospital technicians at Save Our Seabirds.

It was discovered near a grassy area, Luckner responded, which was unusual, she thought at the time, she added.

“[The poisoning] seems to be specific to the laughing gulls,” Thomas told the SKA members. “The other shore birds are not being affected, as far as we can tell.”

SKA Director Erin Kreis asked Thomas if he could contact the managers of the condominium complexes in the areas where the birds had been found, to ask if the managers were doing anything different that might be having an effect on the birds.

“Very often, it’s the managers of the properties that call us,” Thomas replied.

So far, he continued, none of them had reported any changes in maintenance or other activities.

Usually, he continued, he has rescued one bird at a time. However, that morning, he was called to help three in a group.

A woman in the audience reported having seen two gulls the previous day that appeared sick when she was walking on the beach. One’s head was drooping to its chest, she said. “The wings were spread out.” She never before had seen a bird in that condition, she added.

On Oct. 9, Thomas told the News Leader in a telephone interview that he had picked up a couple more sick birds this week from the Public Safety Building at Siesta Key Public Beach, where the county’s lifeguards are based, along with the Sheriff’s Office personnel.

The lifeguards will take a sick or injured bird to the building, he said, and put it in a cage Save Our Seabirds has provided. Then they will call the nonprofit, so someone can pick up the bird and transport it to City Island, Thomas added.

“I’ve been to Point of Rocks, as well,” he said, within the last week.

One other Save Our Seabirds volunteer lives on Siesta, Thomas noted. He and the other person picked up several birds last weekend, Thomas said.

Jonathan Hande. Image from the Save Our Seabirds website

He had talked this week with Hande, the senior hospital technician, Thomas continued, so Thomas said he knew about the botulism theory. “That makes sense,” Thomas added, given that the toxin can be found in the soil.

The gulls rescued on Siesta Key have been found centralized in three locations, he added: Point of Rocks, on the southern part of Siesta Beach; the area near the 6000 block of Midnight Pass Road; and the vicinity of the lifeguard stations on the public beach. He had not received any reports of sick birds on the northernmost part of the beach, he pointed out.

During the SKA meeting, Thomas asked that anyone who finds a sick bird call 388-3010, which is the number for Save Our Seabirds. The nonprofit will dispatch someone trained to collect the bird, he said. However, he asked that the person stay with the bird, if at all possible, after making the call.

Gulls and other birds will move, even if they are sick, he pointed out. If the caller leaves the scene, Thomas said, the rescuer might have difficulty trying to locate the bird.

Another member of the audience offered praise for the work of Save Our Seabirds. The man said he had visited the nonprofit’s facilities on City Island. “You can make a contribution if you want.”

Save Our Seabirds is located at 1708 Ken Thompson Parkway in Sarasota. As SKA President Luckner noted, it is near Mote Marine. A person driving north must cross the bridge from Lido Key to Longboat Key and then turn right to head toward Save Our Seabirds.

Save Our Seabirds welcomes visitors. Image from the nonprofit’s website

The nonprofit’s website explains that its mission is “to rescue, rehabilitate, and release sick and injured wild birds while educating our community about preventing injuries and preserving habitats.”