By Georgie Lellman
For five Wisconsin piping plovers, Illinois was a safe haven for a time this summer. Biologists rescued five birds from their home in the Cat Islands near Green Bay, Wis., on July 24, and brought them to Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, which borders Lake Michigan, just south of the Wisconsin-Illinois state line. The plovers, which are federally classified as an endangered species in the Great Lakes region, faced fatal risks at their home.
The reason for the relocation? An outbreak of botulism in Green Bay, which had already taken the lives of many ducks and shorebirds, as well as some piping plover chicks—more than 100 birds according to Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Brad Semel. Botulism affects nerve endings and impacts muscle movement, which causes birds to become lethargic and weak and often results in drowning in infected waterbirds.
On this World Shorebirds Day, it’s worth a closer look at botulism, one of the greatest threats facing shorebirds and other taxa in the Great Lakes. The botulism in this case is type C, which the USGS explains is caused by “a natural toxin produced by a bacterium (Clostridium botulinum) commonly found in the soil.” Botulism spores are abundant in soils and aquatic sediments in many of the Great Lakes. Michigan Sea Grant remarks that “under the right conditions, the spores germinate and begin growing the toxin-producing bacterial cells.” The botulism is concentrated in invertebrates, which feed on water and sediments containing the bacteria. Shorebirds ingest the invertebrates—and large concentrations of the botulism toxin—and the effect on nerves and muscles takes hold.
Increased water temperatures and seiches—a periodic rising and lowering of water levels in an enclosed or semi-enclosed body of water—create conditions ripe for botulism. The lake bed can be exposed amid the shallow waters of southern Green Bay and waves can pick up and distribute the toxin. With global air and water temperatures increasing, including temperatures in the Great Lakes region, there is an increased potential for botulism outbreaks, placing greater harm on the endangered shorebird species, like piping plovers, which depend on safe, healthy, and consistent habitats for survival. While the Green Bay piping plovers—four juveniles and one adult—were quickly relocated to northern Illinois, many others were not recovered in time.
At the time that the plovers were relocated to Illinois Beach, they were greeted by a now-famous Illinois piping plover, “Monty,” who had wandered north from Montrose Beach in Chicago. Monty was first seen in Illinois at nearby Waukegan Beach in 2017 and then attempted to nest there with “Rose” in 2018.
Since being rescued, at least two of the relocated piping plovers also made their way to Waukegan Beach before presumably heading away for the season. With any luck, both Monty and the relocated piping plovers will endure their lengthy migrations south and return to their Illinois breeding grounds next year!
Georgie Lellman is a recent graduate of Kenyon College and an intern for Turnstone Strategies, which produced the film “Monty and Rose.” She is interested in environmental law and passionate about wildlife issues. Contact Georgie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan Sea Grant, “Avian Botulism”
Fox 11 News, “Endangered piping plovers relocated to avoid bird-killing bacteria”
USGS, “Avian Botulism”
Chicago Tribune, “Young piping plovers from Wisconsin released in Lake County to aid their southerly migration”
Juvenile plover photos courtesy Gustavo Ustariz.