Millions of birds migrate through the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex every spring. (NDomer73/Flickr)

The newest volunteer opportunity in the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex is picking up bird carcasses stricken by a deadly avian cholera outbreak killing birds as they migrate north. The refuge, which spans the California/Oregon border, has already logged more than 10,000 deaths this spring.

“It can take a bird very quickly. You can look at a bird in the morning and it seems completely healthy and that bird may be dead in a couple of hours,” said Ron Cole, Refuge Manger for Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Over 2 million birds migrate through the refuge in the spring, but snow geese and northern pintails seem to be hit hardest by the sickness.

What’s causing this fatal illness? Lack of water in the Klamath basin wetlands and the concentration of birds in a smaller space. The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges is part of the Klamath Reclamation Project, which doles out water to all users in its jurisdiction. The refuges are the lowest priority; they didn’t get any water between December and March.

“We were about 50% of normal of what we would hope to have for wetlands flooded at this time of year,” explained Cole. “That concentrated the birds. When they are concentrated they tend to spread the disease more quickly,” he added. Cole says more water in the basin would help alleviate the concentration. In the meantime, he and his volunteers are trying to scoop up carcasses as fast as possible so that fluids from the dead birds don’t contaminate the other birds.

“We think the outbreak is slowing down,” Cole says, but not before in his estimate 15,000-20,000 birds will have died. That’s a small portion of theĀ  2 million that migrate through in a spring, but far more deaths than the Refuges usually see. Even worse, if the Refuges doesn’t get more regular water this type of outbreak is likely to happen again.

Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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