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Local wildlife center called on to help in avian botulism outbreak
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Animal Care Manager Veronica Sandow examines a ruddy duck that is unable to stand on Friday. A cushion has been taped to the duck to protect its underside. The Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center took in 50 birds out of Tulare County on Friday that are suffering from avian botulism (SAMANTHA SCHMIDT/The Journal).

A makeshift triage center is being set up Friday afternoon on the grounds of the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center, just a few hundred feet from the Tuolumne River.

Executive director Donna Burt and her team, working under a pop-up canopy to fight the glaring sun, are waiting for California Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel to deliver birds from Kings County that are afflicted with avian botulism.

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Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center founder Donna Burt examines a duck and notes that its closed, dry eyes and pale mouth indicate dehydration (SAMANTHA SCHMIDT/The Journal).

“Fortunately, botulism has a quick turnaround time,” says Veronica Sandow, an SWCC animal care manager. “We need to give the birds fluids three or four times a day. We’ll know very soon if they’re going to make it.”

At about 12:30 p.m., the CDFW volunteers arrive and unload a bevy of blue cardboard boxes that form a handle at the top when closed. Each box is labeled and comes with matching paperwork, and a very sick bird — sometimes two — inside.

“A lot of these facilities that we have in California are not ready for such high levels of quarantine, and having to separate each and every single waterfowl patient that comes through,” says Sandow. “It’s a pretty difficult task for a string of facilities that are funded by the public; just donations. So, everyone’s doing the best they can and we are the largest facility that had room to properly quarantine these birds and triage them.”

Nearly 50 birds — medium and large shore birds, such as ibises, dowagers, and various types of ducks — were transported from the Tulare Lake region. A member of the team carefully removes each bird and assesses its overall condition.

The first bird’s eyes are closed — a bad sign — and the inside of its mouth is red, instead of pink. There’s a tackiness to its saliva, an indication of dehydration. Some birds are unable to stand due to the toxin in their system that has caused paralysis. It’s that paralysis that could rob the birds of the ability to swim or flee from predators. 

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Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center founder Donna Burt administers subcutaneous fluids to a duck to rehydrate it (SAMANTHA SCHMIDT/The Journal).

“We care for about 2,000 animals a year,” said Burt. “And that’s without incidents like this one.”

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has monitored the botulism outbreak, with the number of sick and dying birds increasing as the summer has progressed. This trend is likely to continue until the weather cools in the fall.

“We don’t usually care for large numbers of shorebirds, so this will be a challenge,” said Burt. “We currently have about 450 patients in care. Adding 50 birds in one day will be difficult. And we can expect more in the coming weeks. Fortunately, most birds with avian botulism recover in a few days and can be released.”

Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, according to Smithsonian Magazine. However, settlers drained the lake in the 1800s for agricultural purposes. The lake reappears during unusually high levels of rainfall or snow melt, as it did after floods in 1969, 1983, 1997 … and 2023.

Avian botulism is caused by clostridium botulinum, a bacteria found in the soil. The bacteria release a toxin that causes paralysis in birds. If caught early enough, birds can recover with fluids, food, and warmth. Once birds clear the toxin from their system, they can recover without ill effects and be released into unaffected areas.

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Recuperating in their enclosure, these dowitchers show how quickly the birds can begin to recover with supportive care (SAMANTHA SCHMIDT/The Journal).

Outbreaks commonly occur when normally dry, grassy areas are inundated with water, as was the case this past winter.

Once the water warms, vegetation begins to rot, which in turn allows bacteria to thrive.

The SWCC, which works in conjunction with Monte Vista Small Animal Hospital in Turlock, is in need of volunteers, donations and personal protection equipment.

To find out how you can help, visit, where you can also find a link to the SWCC’s Amazon wish list.