CLEVELAND -- The Great Lakes are the winter home to millions of sea birds and waterfowl that need open water to survive. The frigid weather of the past few months left 92 percent of the lakes covered in ice, and that left diver ducks out in the cold.
Jen Brumfield, a naturalist for the Cleveland Metroparks explains, "With the freeze-over, all of these birds are piling into very, very small, open-water outlets where they become stressed. There is limited food for them there, so they starve and die."
The death toll on Lake Erie could run in the tens of thousands.
As the frozen lake thaws, carcasses of the deceased ducks are washing up along the shore by the hundreds. The waterfowl are mostly diver ducks, like greater and lesser scaup, redheads, canvasbacks, and red-breasted mergansers.
Prior to dying, many ducks have flown off to look for food. They run out of strength and land in people's yards, driveways or roadways. Some have been rescued and taken to wildlife rehabilitation centers, like the one at the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Bay Village.
Tim Jasinski has been working to get the ducks healthy again and released back to the wild.
"We received 36 red-breasted mergansers since the beginning of the year. It's been pretty crazy," he said.
The weak are nursed back to health on a mixture of commercial duck chow and PediaSure. As they get their strength back, they can switch to their main diet, fish. But fish are expensive.
"Our budget is slashed through July 31," Jasinski says. "These birds can eat up to a hundred minnows or small goldfish a day. It's very expensive."
The nonprofit nature center is looking for donations to get them through. They've had more than 135 ducks brought into the center. They usually see 20 over a normal winter.
Tragically, some of the ducks are just too weak to survive.
Brumfield says, "The Cleveland Museum of Natural History will be taking many of the deceased for study."
Waterfowl dieoffs are not new, but this year the numbers are much higher due to the harsh weather.
"It's survival of the fittest," Brumfield said. "Mother Nature is rough, but there is good that comes from this. It weeds out the old, the sick, and strengthens the gene pool."
The dead waterfowl pose no threat to humans, but if you see any, feel free to call the Cleveland Metroparks and file a report. They are tracking numbers of the dead ducks.
If you see an injured duck or any injured wildlife or want to offer help, you can contact the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center.