With hundreds of screeching seagulls hovering above and rotting bird carcasses littering the streets, the scene near Zug Island and the waste water treatment plant in Southwest Detroit seems straight out of an apocalyptic horror movie.
Young seagulls pitching camp near Jefferson Avenue are dying off en masse, and the Department of Natural Resources isn’t quite sure why.
Residents and commuters reported the deaths, some claiming to have seen at least 100 bloodied and rotting bird carcasses at a time littering the roadway throughout the last week. The birds are young. They have been picked at, and their bodies are everywhere.
The area is a highly industrial part of the city, and many have jumped to conclusions about toxic waste poisoning the birds.
Tom Cooley, a biologist with the DNR’s wildlife disease lab team, is looking for a clear answer.
Cooley and his team collected samples of the carcasses and are currently running multiple tests, including toxicology examinations for metals and pesticides, as well as botulism and histopathology exams looking for skin disease.
Some of the tests may take weeks to produce conclusive answers, but Cooley believes, for now, that the birds are simply competing for limited resources.
“We can’t rule anything out at this point, but if you look at the obvious parts of the situation, you just have a high population of birds in this area,” Cooley said.
“Anytime you have a high population of a species in an area with limited resources, you’re going to have birds picking on each other when they don’t have a lot of food.”
Of the nine birds Cooley and his team collected this week, almost all of them are young and show signs of being picked at by other birds. While their organs show no other evidence of trauma, they also show signs of high stress levels.
Population stress often manifests in lesions and edema in the lungs, which were among the pieces of evidence found in the nine gulls, Cooley said.
The industrial area doesn’t have a lot of vegetation nearby, and the heavy truck traffic hasn’t helped keep the birds safe from harm.
Cooley said older birds may be picking at the young gulls to keep them away from valuable resources. Since young seagull chicks can’t fly, they walk in search of food. That means traversing Jefferson Avenue in midday traffic.
“A lot of what we’re seeing is birds being hit in the street,” he said.
“They wander around out there, and because they’re flightless, they walk around the road and get hit by good-sized trucks. Those trucks probably won’t stop for gull, or even see them for that matter.”