"This duck die-off has been unprecedented. Biologists who've been here for 35 years have never seen anything like this," says Wildlife Biologist Connie Adams of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
The Western New York region is bearing witness to a quiet but devastating ecological disaster. The harsh and seemingly endless winter has been the root cause of death for thousands of ducks, from Rochester to the Niagara River.
Adams says, "This has never been documented in the past. … As cold as people believe the winter has been, it has in fact been that cold because it's verified by the fact that this abundant wildlife population cannot survive... this winter."
The massive die-off first was noticed by local birders in mid-January. Adams tells 2 The Outdoors that when the NYDEC went out to investigate the situation had already reached a serious stage.
"It wasn't until the middle of February, about a month later, that I went out and investigated it myself, and, in fact, it was worse than I could have expected. I thought it was going to be bad, and it was worse than that."
With most of the area's open water frozen over, and no seasonal thaw to break up some of the ice, ducks and other waterfowl are finding it almost impossible to find the prey they rely on.
The affected birds are slowly dying of starvation.
Beverly Jones of the Erie County SPCA speculates, "Is it because there's a shortage of fish ? Or is it because there are fish but there's so much ice, and the fish are actually retreating to beneath the ice cover, and the birds are not able to get to their food source?"
Tanya Lowe of Hawk Creek Wildlife Center thinks it's the result of a combination of factors. "They're burning more energy to try and stay warm, and they have less access to food because of the ice. There's a lot of competition between ducks right now because there's not very much open water, so now you have the entire population, that's usually spread out between several open water area,s congregating in one area."
The sudden influx of weak birds has had an impact on local wildlife rehabilitators. "A bird needs to consume about 20 percent of its body weight a day," says Jones. "So, if a bird is supposed to weigh 1,000 grams, it's going to eat about 200 grams of food in a day. For us to provide that amount of food in a day is very expensive, and (it's) sometimes difficult to find enough fish to do that."
Lowe explains another difficult aspect of caring for these birds. "People don't think about this but you have to give them baths. Not scrubbing them, but you have to give them the opportunity to swim to keep up the waterproofing on their feathers, so that when you do release them, they have their waterproofing and can hunt for themselves and they can stay warm."
Although the grim tableau is difficult to observe, Lowe says it's also a reminder of the balance of nature, one that's playing out as we watch.
"It's the circle of life," says Lowe, "it's how everything goes. While those ducks didn't make it, they didn't get help in time, so they didn't survive, they are feeding not only those gulls, they are feeding other birds of prey. I'm sure that great horned owls, red tailed hawks, bald eagles, they're getting a free meal. So while it's been very difficult on them they are still helping the other predators out there by providing a very easy-to-get meal."
Even if spring were to arrive tomorrow, nature's tide in this case is overwhelming, and many of the remaining birds would not make it.
Jones believes it's also possible that this sad event is but a glimpse into the future. "There needs to be conversations concerning the bigger picture, concerning global climate change. Is this something that's just a rarity, and it's not going to happen again for many, many years, or is this a snapshot into the future for these birds? "
Lowe agrees. "The climate is changing and it's changing at an unprecedented rate, from all the research that's been done. And this is causing us to have more pressure on our wildlife faster than what many of them can adapt to."