Hundreds of sea birds have been found dead along the beaches of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, apparently victims of avian cholera, according to Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who noted that “early reports estimated the number to be around 200-300 bird per square kilometer,” with most found along the beach at Savoonga.
"Although the amount may seem alarming to many people, considering the fact that we get 6 million birds migrating back and forth, the size of our avian cholera outbreak, is actually considerably smaller than similar events in other places, Beckmen said.” There are seabird die-offs in the Bering Sea that wash into villages all the time," she said. "For this disease, actually, these numbers are really small, which makes me think there's a lot more birds that died somewhere else that we didn't see."
Avian cholera can reportedly kill birds within 6-12 hours after they become infected. In fact, “death may be so fast that birds literally fall out of the sky or die while eating with no previous signs of disease.” Those that do show symptoms generally appear lethargic, have convulsions; swim in circles; throwing the head back between the wings; fly upside down or trying to land a foot or more above the water. Other signs include mucous discharge from the mouth; soiling or matting of the feathers around the vent, eyes, and bill; pasty, fawn-colored or yellow droppings; or blood-stained droppings or nasal discharge.”
Avian cholera is caused by Pasteurella multocida bacteria, a completely different strain of bacteria than the one that causes cholera in humans, and is spread through bird-to-bird contact, as well as ingestion of contaminated food and water. It has also been known to spread through aerosol transmission.
Officials warn anyone touching a sick bird or animal to wear gloves and wash hands with soap and water after handling animals or butchering meat. They are also warning people NOT to eat any birds (or animals) that have died from the disease.
Residents who pick up carcasses need to put them into doubled garbage bags. Unfortunately, this being December, with the ground already frozen, the bodies will have to wait until spring for burial, since fuel needed to burn them would be far too expensive, as well as leave petroleum waste on the beach.
Note: While this is the first outbreak ever reported in Alaska, it is actually quite common in certain areas of the lower 48 states, particularly in Texas, California and Nevada, as well as in Canada, where it killed off large numbers of snow geese and eider ducks