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Why Bird Poop Might Be To Blame For Recent LA Seabird Deaths

A dead bird lays on the beach as the sun sets in Venice California.
Photographer Jonathan Alcorn was watching the sunset on Jan. 28, 2022 west of Venice Boulevard when he saw around 20 dead birds in the sand.
( Jonathan Alcorn for LAist)
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Dozens of dead seabirds washed up on Venice beaches in the last week of January.

Wildlife experts told us that many Brandt’s cormorant deaths was unusual— and troubling. The dark-colored “footswimmers” have webbed feet and eyes that turn bright blue during breeding season. They’re plentiful along the Pacific Coast.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife examined some of the corpses and found 11 young birds that had died of starvation.

“It could be they were just inexperienced, or there was some underlying cause that was no longer detectable at time of postmortem examination,” Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Krysta Rogers said in a statement.

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But there is something else killing cormorants off the Pacific Coast.

For the last couple years they’ve washed up on beaches dazed, tremoring and having seizures before ultimately dying of a neurological disease, said Rebecca Duerr, a veterinarian at the International Bird Rescue in San Pedro.

Duerr and others identified a parasitic single-celled organism that was causing cysts and swelling in the cormorants' brains.

Rogers said Fish and Wildlife found at least five cormorants died in February of the same disease in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. That disease is typically caused by a single-celled parasite called Sarcocystis calchasi.

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The conduit for the parasite is likely poop.

FIND A DEBILITATED OR DEAD BIRD?
    • Don’t touch it. Take a picture and note the bird’s location.
    • The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health says for a single dead bird, call 877-WNV-BIRD, or go online. For clusters of 3 or more dead birds, call 213-288-7060.
    • The International Bird Rescue has tips for helping injured birds. You can also call their help line from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. at 310-514-2573.

The parasite life cycle usually relies on hawks and pigeons. It goes like this: hawk poops out parasite eggs, pigeons eat the poop, parasites form cysts in pigeons, raptor eats pigeon, repeat.

Fish and Wildlife presumes some of this parasite-laden raptor poop washes into the ocean where the cormorants ingest it.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about this particular Sarcocystis parasite,” Rogers said.

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The agency is continuing to examine additional bird deaths.

What questions do you have about Southern California?