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Dying birds rain on Eola
By Pamela J. Johnson and Doris Bloodsworth | Sentinel Staff Writers Posted August 18, 2001
Birds fell dead from the trees and sky around downtown Orlandoís Lake Eola Park Friday, stunning residents out for an evening stroll and leaving officials struggling to find an explanation.
Nearly 100 birds began dropping from trees or even falling in mid-flight about 6 p.m. in the popular park on the east side of downtown. Most were grackles and pigeons, but at least one duck was found dead. Egrets and Lake Eolaís famous black swans did not appear affected. Park rangers made announcements warning hundreds of people gathered for the eveningís MoviEola outdoor film feature, Chicken Run, not to touch the birds. Workers with gloves were busy putting them into bags and trash bins, and they planned to put the carcasses on ice to preserve them for necropsies.
Experts were baffled by the deaths.
West Nile tests
Health officials said the birds will be tested for West Nile virus, which is carried by birds and can be transmitted to humans via mosquito bites. The disease has spread south into Florida, infecting two people. In 1999, it was blamed for a large die-off of crows in New York, near where it was first documented in the United States.
The virus has not yet been found in dead birds tested in Orange County in recent weeks but is expected to spread through the state.
Ron Hardee of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Central Florida said he had been to several conferences recently where experts had warned about scenarios similar to Friday nightís incident at Lake Eola as being a possible indicator of West Nile virus.
Fridayís bird kill appeared localized. There were no other unusual reports of dead birds elsewhere downtown or in the city, officials said.
People strolling around the lake were shocked by the sight of the birdsí sudden deaths.
"I didnít know what was going on," said Ruth Vlahakes, 26, who walked briskly with her sister, Sarah. "I knew something was weird. I saw a bird, then she saw one, then there was another one, and another one. Every time we went around we saw another dead bird."
Passers-by watched a city worker in a green uniform and latex gloves walk slowly around the lake loading dead birds into a large garbage bag. It was nearly half full.
Trash pail filled
So was the tall white trash pail another gloved worker was filling. He remained stationary near the amphitheater. Enough birds fell within a few steps of where he was positioned that he didnít have to go walk far. They dropped and he waited. He nudged a few to see if they were dead yet, then into the bin they went.
"I know thatís abnormal behavior for a bird," said Corrine Suhm, who had just walked out of Panera Bread on the parkís east side when she and her husband noticed a black bird laying on its side slowly flexing its wings.
"How sad," she said, as the bird suddenly went still. "This is terrible."
Dodged falling bird
Jeremy Zeedyk, 21, was standing at the lake shooting a photo of Orlandoís signature water fountain when a bird nearly struck his head.
"Whoa! Did you see that?" said a baffled Zeedyk, who was in Orlando for a few days with his Navy crew. "I didnít know we had to wear hardhats here."
Some were disturbed.
Anelsa Rivera, 24, ran up to a park ranger with her husband, Thomas, and 2-year-old girl, Ariana, in tow. Her family had come to the lake with a box of crackers to feed the birds.
"Thereís a black bird dying over there and I think his little legs are broken," Rivera told the ranger, who explained that "for some strange reason, birds are falling out of the sky and we donít know why."
Ron Barna, the park manager, said although there have been occasional deaths of ducks and other water birds, he had never heard of land birds dying in large numbers as they did Friday.
Barna said city employees planned to keep on ice at least one bird of each type that died. On Monday, those birds will be sent to county environmental control officials for necropsies.
Bill Toth, Orange Countyís head of diseases and their causes, said in recent days pigeons had died in a similar manner. Those birds had been sent to Kissimmee for necropsies, he said, but county officials had not received the results yet.
During the past several months, Toth said county health officials had submitted dozens of dead crows and blue jays for examination and none had been infected with the West Nile virus.
Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture in Tallahassee, said his agency also had not heard of the West Nile virus appearing in Orange County.
"But the expectation is that this will ultimately spread throughout the state," McElroy said.
Roger Roy and Sherri M. Owens of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Pamela J. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5171. Doris Bloodsworth can be reached at 407-420-5446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Tess (email@example.com), August 18, 2001
I really don't see how an infectious disease such as West Nile could cause such *abrupt*, *localized* deaths of birds in flight. Rather, I would assume the wildlife biologists are looking carefully for toxins (e.g. pesticides applied to a nearby area that all the birds were exposed to at the same time).
Among naturally occurring diseases, the only thing I can think of (as a human doctor, not a veterinarian) is botulism of birds, but I wonder if this would be expected to cause sudden death of many birds while flying (it is a condition known to cause mass die-offs of waterfowl, but not I think while they are soaring overhead).
Also, I wonder if any weird atmospheric conditions (cold air? high altitude hail that doesn't reach the ground?) could do this??? And, IF there is evidence of internal heating, I suppose one could raise questions about electromagnetic sources (high-energy radars?).
In any event, it's a measure of the panic about West Nile that such an obviously silly speculation dominates the news article.
-- Andre Weltman (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 20, 2001.
Just a note to ponder... If birds around me are falling out of the sky, how long will it be till I drop dead from breathing the same air that they breath?
-- Michael Butler (Vintage1956@msn.com), August 28, 2001.