Avian Botulism Killed 24 Ducks, Park Service Says

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008

The mysterious deaths of 24 ducks and ducklings found floating in the Capitol Reflecting Pool yesterday has been traced to avian botulism, a disease caused by bacteria in hot water that is not contagious to humans, a spokesman for the National Park Service said.

"Human beings are totally safe," said the spokesman, Bill Line. "There is no risk of passing avian botulism on to humans." He said that the disease was a "naturally recurring event" in hot summer weather and that it is "happening right now" to young and susceptible waterfowl in many parts of the United States.

The fatal outbreak was the second in two weeks among flocks of ducks that frequent the pool on the western side of the Capitol, where tourists often photograph them from the ornate stone steps surrounding the water.

On July 12, more than a dozen ducks were reported floating dead in the pool, raising initial concerns of poisoning, a toxic chemical spill or even terrorism. The ducks were taken away and the pool and surrounding area were searched for signs of hazardous materials.

Alan Etter, a spokesman for the District Fire Department, said the FBI had sent some of the deceased ducks for testing and found they had died from a "disease or condition . . . naturally occurring among ducks."

The test results were a relief to some. "We know it wasn't terrorism. Initially we wanted to clarify it wasn't that," said Sgt. Robert Lachance, a spokesman for the U.S. Park Police.

Yesterday, with temperatures climbing into the 90s, more ducks died.

Doug Levine, a District resident, was on a mid-morning stroll, watching clusters of ducklings scoot after their mothers, when he noticed that something was terribly wrong.

"I'd say 20 of them were dead, in the water, floating. The tourists were walking by," said Levine, 52, who has been following the progress of the baby ducks all month. On July 12, he saw "at least 17 little ones dead, some still alive but not swimming. . . . Then they were fine for two weeks, and now it's happened again. It is so sad."

When the second outbreak was reported yesterday, the National Park Service sent a team to collect the bodies and cordon off the area. Initial tests by a federal laboratory for wildlife diseases found evidence of avian botulism, said Line, of the National Park Service.

Line said the disease occurs often when water temperatures reach 68 degrees for an extended period, allowing bacteria to grow in organic pond material and in the surrounding soil. Line said the only way to prevent another outbreak would be to build a circulating water system in the pool.

Yesterday's toll, Line said, was 9 ducklings, 13 young ducks and 2 adults; the disease tends to be more harmful to younger and weaker birds. After they were removed from the pool, only a handful of ducks remained, sitting quietly on the rim.

Meanwhile, in the much larger Reflecting Pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, hundreds of ducks and Canada geese glided, preened and splashed all afternoon. Line said that pool is deeper, so the water does not get as warm.

Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

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