Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Mystery: Birds Drop Dead in Two Continents - Officials Can't Say Why!

Birds Dead
Mystery as thousands of dead birds fall from sky

THOUSANDS of birds have fallen from the skies over Esperance and no one knows why.

By Amanda O'Brien
News.com
1-10-07

     Is it an illness, toxins or a natural phenomenon? A string of autopsies in Perth have shed no light on the mystery.

All the residents of flood-devastated Esperance know is that their "dawn chorus" of singing birds is missing.

The main casualties are wattle birds, yellow-throated miners, new holland honeyeaters and singing honeyeaters, although some dead crows, hawks and pigeons have also been found.

Wildlife officers are baffled by the "catastrophic" event, which the Department of Environment and Conservation said began well before last week's freak storm.

On Monday, Esperance, 725km southeast of Perth, was declared a natural disaster zone.

District nature conservation co-ordinator Mike Fitzgerald said the first reports of birds dropping dead in people's yards came in three weeks ago. More than 500 deaths had since been notified. But the calls stopped suddenly last week, reportedly because no birds were left.

"It's very substantial. We estimate several thousand birds are dead, although we don't have a clear number because of the large areas of bushland," Mr Fitzgerald said.

Birds Australia, the nation's main bird conservation group, said it had not heard of a similar occurrence. "Not on that scale, and all at the same time, and also the fact that it's several different species," chief executive Graeme Hamilton said. "You'd have to call that a most unusual event and one that we'd all have to be concerned about."

He expected birds would return to the area once the problem - natural or man-made phenomenon - was fixed but said it was vital the cause was identified.

The Department of Agriculture and Food, which conducted the autopsies, has almost ruled out an infectious process.

Acting chief veterinary officer Fiona Sunderman said toxins were the most likely cause but the deaths could be due to anything from toxic algae to chemicals and pesticides.

Dr Sunderman said there were no leads yet on which of potentially hundreds of toxins might be responsible. Some birds were seen convulsing as they died.

Michelle Crisp was one of the first to contact the DEC after finding dozens of dead birds on her property one morning.

She told The Australian she normally had hundreds of birds in her yard, but that she and a neighbour counted 80 dead birds in one day.

"It went to the point where we had nothing, not a bird," she said.

"It was like a moonscape, just horrible. But the frightening thing for us, we didn't find any more birds after that. We literally didn't have any birds left to die."
More . . .

Bird deaths shut down downtown Austin

By JIM VERTUNO
Associated Press
1-8-07

     AUSTIN, Texas - Police shut down 10 blocks in downtown Austin for several hours Monday after 63 birds were found dead in the street, but officials said preliminary tests found no threat to people.

Workers in yellow hazardous-materials suits tested for contaminants in a cordoned-off section near the state Capitol and the governor's mansion before authorities finally gave the all-clear in the afternoon.

Although officials could not immediately determine whether poison or something else killed the birds, "there's no threat to humans at this point," said Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald.

The dead grackles, sparrows and pigeons will be tested.

Some experts said the most likely cause of the die-off was a deliberate poisoning. "It happens quite frequently," said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society in Washington.

Grackles are a crowlike bird regarded as a major pest in Texas, with Austin sidewalks sometimes covered in their droppings.

The dead birds were found overnight along Congress Avenue, a major downtown thoroughfare. Police closed the route through downtown and two side streets, and a staging area was set up near the Capitol, with dozens of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances.

The Capitol opened on schedule, however. And the governor was not asked to leave the mansion.

Dr. Adolfo Valadez, medical director for the Austin and Travis County Health and Human Services Division, said the birds will be tested for signs of poison or viral infections. But officials do not believe bird flu is involved.

It could be days or weeks before a cause is determined, he said.

The Austin street closures were not the only public health concern in Texas on Monday. In the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, authorities asked people to stay indoors with windows closed after a chemical release at an industrial plant. Ethylenediamine was released into the air while a tanker truck was unloading at a division of Nalco Co.

The warning was lifted a little more than an hour later after emergency crews contained the leak of the colorless liquid, which has an amomonia-like odor and can cause skin and nasal irritation, and possible damage to the kidneys and liver.

Three employees were sent to a hospital and about a dozen others were treated on the scene.

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