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Disease kills ducks in Orange County

August 7, 2009 9:07:59 AM PDT
A potentially deadly disease is striking birds in Orange County. About two dozen ducks have gotten sick or died. But what's causing the illness?It's noontime at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach and a worker brings in another sick mallard duck. She's among 11 that have survived. Nearly 30 other ducks have died, the victims of what wildlife experts believe is avian botulism.

"They're just limp, lifeless," said Jamie Pavlat, a supervisor with the center. "Their lids can't even open. They shut down because it's a neurotoxin."

The sick or dead ducks were discovered at Laguna Niguel Regional Park, in a lake popular for fishing. The first one turned up a week ago.

Signs have been posted warning people not to feed water fowl, in an attempt to try to prevent an outbreak. Officials say rotting food, animal or vegetable matter can lead to the bacteria that creates the botulism toxin, given the right conditions.

Experts say the heat, along with receding or slow-moving water, provide the right combination for the botulism toxin. Birds can acquire it when they eat rotting food, or the maggots that feed on the decaying material.

The surviving ducks are slowly getting better, though some are still having problems getting around. Workers are flushing the ducks with fluid to try to get rid of the toxin.

"Up to five or six times a day, every couple of hours to help flush it out," said volunteer Julie Weinfeld. "Until they're ready to eat normally again."

"They're doing much better," said Pavlat. "Their heads aren't hanging. As days go by, pretty soon they'll be standing up and we'll put them outside."

Rescuers hope the outbreak is tapering off and remain hopeful the survivors will be well enough to soon be released.

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