Preparing for a Botulism Outbreak on the Klamath

Wildlife Rehabilitators with Bird Ally X Give an Insider’s Look

This article was written by our partners at Portland Audubon. The original article can be found here.

The Klamath National Wildlife Refuges are among the most important refuges on the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds. They provide critically important stopover habitat for 80% of waterfowl and 55-60% of waterbirds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway. More than 260 species of birds have been observed on the refuges. But over 80% of the historic Klamath wetlands have been lost, primarily to commercial agriculture, making the remaining refuge wetlands all the more important to the survival of wild birds.

However, the Klamath refuges and the birds that depend on them are in dire trouble. The basin’s limited water supply has been vastly overallocated, and historic drought has turned a bad situation catastrophic. What little water is available goes first to endangered fish, c’waam, koptu, and salmon, then to farmers. In recent years, the refuges have gone bone dry in the summer.

This month we are bringing you an interview with January Bill and Marie Travers, who co-run the Bird Ally X Botulism Response Project, the bird hospital on the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. That a wildlife refuge needs a bird hospital is an extraordinary thing in and of itself. But in recent years, low water levels have led to massive outbreaks of botulism among waterfowl and waterbird populations on the refuge. It is estimated that more than 60,000 birds died of botulism on the refuges in 2020. Experts predict that 2021 could be worse. It is a remarkable effort to limit the impacts of a tragic situation that has been allowed to persist for decades and that desperately requires congressional leadership to set this landscape on a path to ecological sustainability.

What is botulism and how does it affect the birds?

January: Avian botulism is a neuromuscular disease that’s caused by a toxin that’s produced by a bacteria found in the soil. When the bacteria is put under certain environmental conditions like drought, it can cause it to germinate and produce the toxin.

Marie: The birds ingest the toxin by eating invertebrates that have also ingested it. Once ingested, the toxin binds to nerve endings and can paralyze muscles. In birds it starts in their legs and moves forward to their wings. Eventually they aren’t able to hold up their necks. It can also paralyze their respiratory systems so they are unable to breathe. If they are in the water they could potentially drown. If they don’t die immediately from drowning, they can die of starvation, predation, or secondary issues.

January: It’s such a big problem at Klamath because we’ve altered the waterways so much and removed so much of the habitat that it’s concentrated all the birds into smaller areas, which opens them up to disease. Because we don’t prioritize water for the refuge, it makes the situation worse for allowing botulism to occur.

Tell us how you became involved with running the bird hospital at Lower Klamath NWR.

January: I was contacted in 2018 by supervisory biologist John Vradenberg, and he asked, ‘What kind of supplies do you need to treat botulism?’ At the time he was newer to botulism outbreaks on the refuge. He was trying to figure out how to best manage the treatment of the sick birds. After John contacted me, I offered to go check it out and really never left. Our organization, Bird Ally X, decided we would all come out to help initially since there were already birds that needed immediate care. We decided to do this response and figure out funding and other issues as we went.

Marie: I got involved because January got involved and reached out to me. We’re friends. I sent supplies up, and then a couple days later birds kept coming in and she asked if I would come up and co-manage the rehabilitation efforts with her.

January: Marie and I have been working together since 2002. We’ve been doing large-scale responses for a long time together.

What is the hospital like and how is it staffed?

Marie: The bird hospital is a maintenance shed on the maintenance yard on the refuge but is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The location is beautiful.

January: It’s used for storage when it’s not being used for botulism. We have to start from scratch every year, making it into a field hospital complete with an ICU, a lab, and everything else needed to do wildlife rehabilitation. Last year there was a wildfire that prevented botulism response for a couple weeks, and we ended up having to work in hazardous air conditions. We tried to really minimize the amount of time we spent at the hospital while at the same time giving good quality care to the birds. There is a lot of extreme weather that we have to take into consideration when we’re building enclosures, like extreme winds, dust, and not having the ability to heat the entire room or cool it down. We have to bring a lot of equipment in to modify the space. This year, Marie and I bought respirators because we’ve already had hazardous days here with smoke, and I’m sure it’s going to continue.

In the state of California we’re really lucky that usually with an oil spill there is a responsible party who pays for responding to oiled wildlife. There is a whole network set up, which means you have thousands of volunteers ready to go. And a hospital specifically made for oil spills that is turn-key. Compared to when we have these mass wildlife emergencies, like wildfires or botulism, there is really no responsible party to pay for that. So a lot of wildlife rehabilitation organizations struggle to manage financially, and also expand their capacity to care for so many animals.

With so many birds on the refuge, what’s the process for getting a bird to the hospital?

January: The refuge biologists along with volunteers go out on airboats in the morning to collect dead birds and rescue the sick. The sick birds are put in small crates on the boat. They stop collecting midday and drive the birds to the field hospital. Last year it was common for them to deliver over 150 at a time. The collection is hard work and takes skill. It’s a fine line between putting airboats out to help birds and also disturbing the healthy migratory birds. I don’t envy [supervisory refuge biologist] John Vradenberg’s job. He does amazing work collecting the birds and trying to mitigate the outbreak as best as they can.

Why is it so important that they get out on the water to collect both dead birds and live birds?

January: The dead birds basically drive the disease because once they die, maggots then concentrate that toxin from their body, and then other birds eat the maggots and are impacted. One of the ways that they mitigate outbreaks is by collecting the dead birds and getting the sick ones out as soon as possible.

How many birds do you see during the botulism outbreaks?

January: In 2018, 494 birds came through. Eighty-one percent were waterfowl. The rest were shorebirds. It shifted in 2019; we had 233 birds. And in 2020, we had 3,195 birds come through. That’s what made last year catastrophic. The outbreak took a toll, estimated at 60,000 waterbirds. Species include Northern Shovelers, Mallards, Northern Pintails, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Black-necked Stilts. Last year we saw a total of 44 species.

What drives you to do this kind of rescue work in the face of so much tragedy? What gives you hope?

January: I think it’s really important for us to respond to these disease outbreaks that can be treated, especially those caused by human actions. I feel like we have a responsibility, and I think that people should fight for what they love, and that’s why I do my work.

Marie: I feel that all of us have a responsibility because of our contribution to the state of the planet right now to do whatever we can to help. A lot of the birds that we work with are federally banded and go on to have productive lives and fly to Mexico, and later have families. It makes a difference.

What does a day in the hospital look like?

Marie: Last year January and I, with the help of eight interns, would go in early and check all of the patients, and prepare food and fluids, and any intensive care treatments needed. We’d get birds out floating in pools as quickly as we could in the morning so we could evaluate them and so they could perform normal behaviors like self-hydrating, eating, and preening. The airboats would come in in the middle of the day, so we would have to get everything prepared for a whole new batch of birds. At the same time, January and I would have to work on releasing birds to make room for all of the new birds coming in. It was a race to get everything done before the new birds arrived.

January: For Marie and I, during the busy days, we worked from six a.m. to ten p.m. with ordering supplies, looking for funding and other administrative work, in addition to work in the hospital.

What does the situation at Klamath tell us about climate change and birds?

January: Unfortunately, disease outbreaks and other catastrophic events are going to continue to impact our wildlife. In this region, it’s affecting Klamath. If Klamath disappears, that’s going to be really hard for those millions of birds that are coming through to alter their migration path. It is already happening. It’s estimated that there are only hundreds of thousands of birds on the refuge now compared to when they have more water and are in the millions. Especially when they are totally dependent on these refuges for stopovers, for feeding, resting, to molt, and raise babies.

In addition, something to think about with climate change and how that may alter our ability to respond: The botulism season ends with the first freezes in early October. If temperatures are warming and freezes aren’t happening until later, it’s going to extend the botulism season and more birds will die.

How can people help?

January: People can make donations to help fund our work. Donations are so important because we started in 2018 by volunteering our organization’s efforts, but we want to make this become a sustainable project. We want to make it so we’re not scrambling to find funds every year, especially during the response and because the numbers of birds can fluctuate from a few hundred to over three thousand.

We also want people to think about the bigger picture and how we can work together to prioritize water for important wildlife refuges. With climate change these types of botulism events are going to become more and more common. Marie and I now spend a lot of the off-season giving presentations at wildlife symposia around the country to share our guidelines for treating large numbers of birds during botulism outbreaks and sharing our partnership model to help save more birds in the future.

Want to support Bird Ally X?

Donate directly by selecting “Botulism Response” at to support their rescue efforts.