LANSING — Near-record ice and less open water on the Great Lakes are a growing concern for the safety of waterfowl in Michigan.
Licensed wildlife rehabilitators say they have seen a “profound” increase in reports of waterfowl stranded on roadways that they confuse with open water.
Once they land, some so-called "diver" birds cannot take off again because their bodies are adapted to lifting off from water.
Northernaire Wildlife Rescue owner Susan Good said she’s fielded at least 50 calls this year about stranded waterfowl. Typically her Cheboygan County business receives about six stranded bird reports each year.
The Department of Natural Resources Traverse City Field Office has dealt with at least 20 to 25 incidents of waterfowl stranded on roadways this year, up from about one case a year, wildlife habitat biologist Steve Griffith said. Several were run over by cars.
“They could starve if they’re left there,” said Katie Keen, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife technician in Cadillac.
The increase in ice this year may have left waterfowl struggling to find open water, Keen said.
On Feb. 12, total ice area on the Great Lakes reached about 88.4 percent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Forecasting System. The ice cover is up from 79.7 percent the previous week and nearing the 1979 record of 95 percent ice cover on the Great Lakes, according to administration data.
A high number of reports of stranded waterfowl have come in from across the state, Keen said. But reports from the Lower Peninsula aren’t surprising to one rehabilitator.
About three weeks ago, Jerry Maynard, president and founder of Chocolay Raptor Center in Marquette County, noticed flocks of birds headed south and similar reports on bird observation blogs.
He said he hasn’t seen many waterfowl in weeks — a strange occurrence for an area that typically offers many bodies of open water.
It’s likely the birds headed south to escape harsher weather conditions in the Upper Peninsula, he said.
Grebes, mergansers and several species of duck have legs placed so far back on their bodies that they can only take off from water, not solid surfaces, Keen said. As a result, waterfowl that mistake shiny, icy roads for open water could face possible starvation without assistance.
The birds are traumatized and aren’t applying their natural water-repellent oils to their feathers, Good said. Because they can’t move to attain food, they become dehydrated in addition to being hypothermic and starving.
Most waterfowl in the state should be safe from dangerous roadways because they fly south, said Kristin Schrader, spokeswoman for Ducks Unlimited. But some that decided to stay after finding open water where they could eat earlier in the year might now be in trouble.
“They’re economical with their calories,” Schrader said. “The ones that stayed didn’t make the best decision.”
The especially harsh winter has put all wildlife at risk, Schrader said, adding that many birds that could have survived Michigan’s winter in previous years are now at higher risk of death whether they get stranded on roadways or not.
If ice cover on the Great Lakes and inland bodies of water continues to grow, several experts said fatalities and incidences of stranded waterfowl could increase.
Would-be rescuers should carefully approach the animal to see if it can fly away, Good said. A bird thrashing on land could also be stranded.
If the bird is stranded, don’t try to rescue it but call a licensed rehabilitator through the county listings on the Department of Natural Resources website at www.michigandnr.com/dlr, Good said.
If people believe a bird needs to be immediately removed from the roadway, Maynard suggested wrapping it in a jacket and carrying it firmly but not too hard.
Good said the bird can be picked up and placed in a container with towels or blankets. The animals should be warmed and given water, but not food because the animal’s digestive system likely cannot process it.
Uninjured birds should eventually be reintroduced to open water, Good said.
The winter’s hazards for waterfowl should not have a significant impact on the ecosystem, Good said.
DARCIE MORAN writes for Michigan State University's Capital News Service.