Last Wednesday night, one of the Tomlinson Park ducks died in Gulfport Police Officer Jennifer Crowson's arms. Another duck had already died when the Gulfport Police arrived at the pond, and a third died en route to the emergency veterinarian.
According to Sergeant Rob Burkhart, Officer Crowson called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Wednesday evening. Police Chief Rob Vincent told the Gabber that FWC asked the police to leave the dead birds as the police found them.
According to neighbors around the pond, in the days that followed the water lilies died, and the ducks either left or died. "The pond is dead," one local man said.
While locals speculate that the recent application of the pesticide Diquat caused the avian deaths, FWC spokesperson Gary Morse doubts that the herbicide killed the ducks.
"That stuff doesn't kill those ducks, for the most part, nor does it kill fish directly, provided that it's an approved herbicide and it's applied correctly," he said, adding that Diquat is toxic "in certain concentrations well above the recommended amount." The Material Safety Data Sheet, or MSDS, does list the herbicide as both an acute and chronic health hazard, noting that it can be toxic to fish at certain levels. However, the MSDS classifies Diquat as a level two health hazard, on a scale of one to four.
The FWC and the city both stress that only licensed individuals can apply the herbicide.
"They can't be applied willy nilly," Morse said Monday morning. "That's why people who apply this stuff are permitted."
Gulfport's Parks and Recreation Superintendent Bob Williams tells the Gabber the city has used the same company for two decades: Lake and Pond Maintenance.
The treated the pond at Tomlinson Park Monday; people began reporting dead birds Wednesday. The last reported death at press time came from police, who responded to another dead bird – a dead wood stork – at the corner of 54th Street South and the Tangerine Greenway Monday night. In total, seven ducks – three Pekins and four mallards – as well as one wood stork have died in the past week.
"What you've got with these particular ducks is... you've got an avian disease," Morse said Monday afternoon.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) sampled the water and the soil. As of Wednesday morning the city had no test results from FDEP. The necropsy (autopsy) of the duck, performed at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bronson Lab in Kissimmee, revealed no physical signs, such as lesions, that helped identify a cause of death, FWC spokesperson Kevin Baxter told the Gabber. He said that further tests will look for avian botulism and duck virus enteritis (DVE), also called the duck plague. The battery of tests will also look for evidence of poisoning. Baxter said FWC expects the results back no earlier than the end of next week.
Avian botulism is a "paralytic disease caused by ingestion of a toxin produced by the bacterium, Clostridium botulinum," according to a city press release.
FWC based their decision to test for avian botulism because initially no other species seemed affected and the heavy rainfall.
According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), avian botulism type C affects waterfowl, shorebirds, colonial waterbirds, "and others."
"Healthy birds, affected birds, and dead birds in various stages of decay are commonly found in the same area," according to the USGS web site. "The toxin affects the nervous system by preventing impulse transmission to muscles. Birds are unable to use their wings and legs normally or control the third eyelid, neck muscles, and other muscles. Birds with paralyzed neck muscles cannot hold their heads up and often drown. Death can also result from water deprivation, electrolyte imbalance, respiratory failure, or predation."
Last Wednesday evening police reported that the two ducks who later died tried to flap their wings but did not appear able to move their legs.
"Prompt removal and proper disposal of carcasses by burial or burning (in accordance with applicable ordinances) is highly effective in removing toxin and maggot sources from the environment," the web site continues. "If possible avoid altering water depth by flooding or drawing down water levels during hot weather. This may increase invertebrate and fish die-offs, a protein source for the bacteria.
"Providing mildly affected birds with fresh water, shade and protection from predators may help them recover from the intoxication. Botulism antitoxin is available but requires special handling and must be given early in the intoxication. Birds that survive a botulism outbreak are not immune to botulism toxin."
The USGS reports that people, dogs and cats "are generally resistant" to type C, although it notes some reports of incidences in dogs and people.
DVE, according to the Department of Natural Resources, does not infect humans but has a high mortality rate for ducks, geese, and swan.
Baxter said the FWC has no other reported waterfowl deaths in the area.
The FWC has bird mortality reporting hotline, available online at MyFWC.com/bird.
By Monday morning, more ducks – see the reader submitted photo at the top of this article– arrived at the pond.