Bird news, good and bad

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Some “good news, bad news” about birds.

First the good: On Dec. 15, a mild Saturday, 11 volunteers fanned out across the 15-mile-diameter Peachtree City circle for the 108th Christmas Bird Count. Veteran coordinator Brock Hutchins led the pack of sleuths to count the number of species wintering over here – 78 in 2007-08 – and the total number of birds counted – 6,331.

We usually stay at home and report the birds at our feeders. (The CBC is an inexact science.) Later everyone goes to Brock’s house to tally their totals and add the Peachtree City count totals into the totals being logged nationwide.

This year, however, Dave went into the fields with several other enumerators and learned pretty quickly that he needs a better set of binoculars.

There were no completely new birds, that is birds that have never shown up on previous counts, although a flock of green-winged teals (ducks), a merlin and a single red-breasted nuthatch seemed to evoke the most excitement among birders.

Wintry weather sure has brought the birds to our feeders. If you have feeders, don’t let them go empty. Slush, snow, and even rain seem to make it hard for the little guys to find food, and they really depend on us.

If you can, secure an open jar of cheap peanut butter to a feeder or post: Birds need the fat to keep warm. Those suet cakes are also valuable; cheapest we’ve found are at Kroger. The trick, of course, is to squirrel-proof them. You’re on your own there.

Now the bad news.

A call on Christmas Day afternoon usually means a daughter is checking in on us and wants to sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as they did as little girls. I was certainly not expecting to hear from Dennis Chase that his neighbor found a dead bald eagle not far from the Flint River.

It had not been dead long but was in sufficient disarray that the cause of death could not be determined by a cursory examination.

Dennis, a retired federal wildlife biologist, is well known for his environmental advocacy in Fayette County. He lives in a very rural area south of the county and reports that duck and deer hunters are often spotted nearby. It’s not common to see eagles soaring over Lake Horton, but, only a few weeks ago, Dennis saw one.

Might it be the same bird? There’s no way to know, of course, but his research leads him to believe it is.

He waited until the day after Christmas and contacted a wildlife biologist, John Jenson, who drove down to meet Dennis and walk into the woods.

Jenson told Chase that there had been instances of a toxin that has been killing bald eagles in the Southeast for the last few years. It was first reported from Arkansas in 1994 and has since spread to several other states. It comes from a blue-green algae that grows on invasive aquatic plants, in this case, probably in Lake Horton. The toxin is ingested by coots which take a few hours to die. Perhaps attracted by the coots flapping during that time, the eagles catch the coots and the eagle in turn dies.

Chase says the disease is now known as Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy and causes brain lesions and death – of the birds. There are articles about it on the Internet. There appears to be no relationship between AVM and avian flu in humans.

Jim Ozier of the state Department of Natural Resources wrote that the eagle’s body has been frozen, although the brain was removed first for further investigation. The carcass will undergo some testing, mainly to determine if there is a gunshot wound, but Ozier said, “I suspect the eagle died of AVM since the disease has been found there before, and since coots with symptoms were observed there just before Christmas.”

Whatever killed the bird, it’s a sad thing to report. Friends called to say they were seeing eagles over Lake Peachtree two years ago. They acted like they were nesting, but eventually disappeared. Eagles need a really huge territory not readily available in a suburban setting like ours.

Eagles were recently taken off the national endangered list – not that that really bears on this case.

The saddest thing about this bad news? Bald eagles usually pair up for life.

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Point to ponder: Ornithologists report that roaming house cats are responsible for the death of more songbirds than any other cause.

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