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DUCKS ON CANAL STILL BEING KILLED BY KINDNESS

Death by handout is still overtaking the ducks of the Erie Canal, despite a summer of warnings.

Thirty dead ducks were recovered from the state canal near Sweeney Street over the weekend and four ailing birds were brought to the SPCA shelter on Ensminger Road, where wildlife rehabilitators have been fighting all week to save them.

They've also been fighting back frustration, as Tonawanda and North Tonawanda residents who think they are keeping the birds from starvation are actually pushing them into disease.

"The big thing is, people are still feeding them," said Diane Obusek.

"They say, 'if we don't feed them they'll starve,' but they're killing them with kindness."

The weekend fatalities occurred at the same spot where a massive duck die-off happened during the canal festival earlier this year, and the culprit was the same -- botulism.

When ducks that would normally feed in dispersed flocks over a large area gather at one spot for handouts of bread or other food, the concentrated population is wide open to the rapid spread of the disease. The toxic spores that cause botulism proliferate, and the decaying carcasses of the first victims breed still more disease organisms.

Signs were posted in the area this summer, warning of the dangers of feeding the waterfowl. But some people insist on continuing the handouts -- even though the ducks would find far healthier diets on their own, if left alone.

"Maybe they should see one of these birds," Ms. Obusek said.

Botulism -- also called "limberneck," for its effects on the birds -- starts with a white fungus on the head, and then the ducks "go neurological" with progressive paralysis.

Earlier this summer, more than 100 mallards and one domestic goose died and 25 were taken to the SPCA in an outbreak during hotter, more humid weather. This month's numbers are smaller but even more frustrating because of the posted warnings, Ms. Obusek said.

State Department of Environmental Conservation officers remove the dead ducks as quickly as possible to try to limit the spread of the disease, and SPCA workers use tubes to flush fluids through the sick birds to cleanse the poisons.

The outlook for the sick birds, the SPCA expert said, is "guarded."

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