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    No more Muscovys found dead in pond

    A bird specialist thinks avian botulism is the cause, but a fresh specimen is needed for testing.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 22, 2001


    LARGO -- As mysteriously as it started, a weeklong episode of Muscovy duck deaths at a 5-acre retention pond appears to have ended.

    Since June 8, at least 25 Muscovys, along with a few egrets and mourning doves, have died slow, agonizing deaths at the pond at Cleveland Avenue and Seminole Boulevard, horrifying residents who feed them.

    The last dead duck washed up Monday.

    Although there's no proof yet, there are two solid theories about what caused the deaths: botulism and poisoning by humans.

    Residents last week suggested that John and Judith Connell, owners of a nearby flower shop, had something to do with the deaths, saying the couple must have fed the birds bread laced with poison because they attacked customers and defecated on the shop's sidewalk.

    But John Connell said the couple is innocent.

    "I'm not a duck killer," he said. "I don't know what's killing the ducks. I have not done anything to the ducks."

    He says he never wanted the city to harm the ducks. He said he just wanted them to find a way to keep them from nesting in his bushes.

    If it's not intentional poisoning, could it be avian botulism, also known as limberneck?

    Ralph Heath, director of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary where some of the ill birds are recuperating, said a brush with limberneck in the early 1970s was similarly deadly to area birds.

    Back then, Heath and staff veterinarian Dr. Harold Albers noticed ducks were being brought to the sanctuary from the Largo/Clearwater area with identical symptoms as the ducks from the retention pond.

    "The birds were walking upright, but actually dragging their head and necks on the ground as though their necks were broken," Heath said. "Albers was from Iowa and had taken care of millions of chickens and turkeys. He said he believed it was limberneck because that's a physical characteristic of botulism. The eyes are fixed like it's dead or in a coma."

    Together, they determined the epidemic occurred only when a drought caused the lakes to become shallow and hot temperatures caused them to heat up. "The organic matter buried underneath the mud forms pockets of botulism," Heath said.

    "The birds grub down for bits of food," Heath said. "It's like if someone opened up a can of bad beans."

    Neighborhood resident Victoria Foley said she "would rather it be something to do with nature."

    "That would make me feel better," she said.

    But to accurately determine how the birds died, a necropsy must be performed on a bird within hours of its death. Eugene Roberts, Largo's streets and drainage foreman, has been collecting dead ducks and keeping a close eye on the pond. The one found Monday was too decomposed for testing.

    "We've got three Muscovys running around the lake," Roberts said. "Right now I'm waiting for a fresh specimen. Once one dies, he'll go to Gainesville (for testing)."

    But Heath is almost positive his diagnosis of limberneck is correct.

    "I would put serious money on the table that's it," Heath said.

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