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Friday, October 13, 2000

U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Botulism can kill stilts and Hawaiian ducks
(below), both endangered species.

Wildlife refuge
battles outbreak
of botulism

Workers race the clock, trying
to clear it up during the
shorebirds' migration

By Rosemarie Bernardo

More than 50 wetlands and shorebirds, many of them endangered species, have died this month at Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge on Maui because of a disease called avian botulism.

It's the first major outbreak of avian botulism at Kealia Pond since the refuge was established in 1992.

"This has hit us at a terrible time of year, with the fall migration bringing more and more shorebirds to the refuge," said refuge manager Glynnis Nakai. "We really want to clean this up before these birds show up."

The disease is caused by a bacteria common in Hawaii's soil that produces a toxin when certain conditions,. such as stagnant water, warm temperatures and decaying vegetation, are present.

Birds are infected with the disease when they eat toxin-laden invertebrates. While the invertebrates are immune to the toxin, botulism affects the birds, paralyzing their voluntary muscles and leading to drowning or asphyxiation.

The disease is not a threat to humans, said Nakai.


Twenty-nine Hawaiian coots, a Hawaiian stilt, 29 koloa (Hawaiian ducks) or hybrids and nine shorebirds died from the disease. Hawaiian coots, stilts and koloa are endangered species.

To discourage more shorebirds from coming to Kealia Pond, workers are trying to dry up the main ponds by turning off pumps, Nakai said. The majority of dead birds were found in the main ponds.

For the birds that do arrive, the refuge has been keeping the pumps running in smaller, aquaculture ponds, where circulation keeps the toxin levels down.

With help from volunteers, staff members at the refuge have been able to search the pond area several times a day to remove dead birds and to bring the weak ones in for treatment.

"We're nursing 10 birds right now with the help of state veterinarian Dr. Greg Massey," said Nakai.

"We're looking for more volunteers to help us through this crisis," she said. "We've already had great support from local veterinarians and the community."

Volunteers from Ducks Unlimited and Haleakala National Park offered their assistance to the refuge, but more volunteers are needed. "The more helping hands we have, the better," Nakai said.

For more information, call the refuge at 808-875-1582.

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