Call for public safety warning after 24 ducks drop dead at popular Sydney park

Authorities are yet to determine why the birds died and are carrying out further tests.

A murky lake in metropolitan Sydney is at the centre of an investigation into the deaths of 24 Pacific black ducks and a corella.

While the first mortalities at Victoria Park were noticed almost two weeks ago, authorities have not erected signs to warn about potential contamination. As a result, some concerned volunteers like Sydney Wildlife Rescue’s Kelly Murphy have been doing their best to alert the public as they continue to monitor for sick birds.

"There were two little kids leaning over the water on the first weekend," she said. "I had to say to their parents: 'You might want to make sure they wash their hands because there's been an issue with some dead animals in the lake'."

Left - Lake Northam with UTS in the background. Right - a dead duck in the lake.
A dead duck (right) can be seen floating in Lake Northam in Sydney where the bodies of 23 others have been found. Source: Supplied

Council took days to carry out water testing

Concerns began on Friday, March 10, when seven dead ducks were found by a member of the public at Lake Northam, which lies adjacent to the University of Sydney. Rescuers from Sydney Wildlife Rescue attended the scene that morning and collected one body for testing but could not retrieve others in the lake.

City of Sydney told Yahoo News Australia it had a contractor on site the next day and carried out tests six days later on Thursday, March 16.

"The City has undertaken urgent testing of water in Lake Northam which has identified no issues that would explain the deaths, consistent with previous water test results at the site which are carried out every few months," it said.

Ms Murphy is concerned that the lake was left without danger signs for days, before the results were known. “I called council every second day last week,” she said.

Now, with the cause of the duck deaths still to be determined, she would like to see signs urgently erected to mitigate risk – even if it is low.

Harm to humans likely low but ducks continue to die

City of Sydney confirmed it is investigating the situation alongside the Australian Registry of Wildlife Health, Taronga Zoo, the Environment Protection Authority and the Department of Primary Industries.

Its expert advice indicates the risk to other aquatic life and the community “is low”. It added duck deaths are “not uncommon” in warmer months and testing for possible soil-borne bacteria is underway, with the results are expected shortly.

Two images highlighting the poor water quality.
The water has shown signs of algae and scum since a hot weather spell two weeks ago. Source: Supplied

The deaths occurred after a stretch of hot weather accompanied by little rainfall, creating perfect conditions for such contaminants to grow. One commonly found soil bacteria is botulism and it has been linked to the deaths of 700 waterfowl at Bells Swamp in Victoria this year.

If botulism is the cause of the illness, the avian strain has minimal effects on people. Ducks have been the first affected birds because of the amount they eat, but other native birds like ibis could fall ill in the coming days.

What symptoms are associated with the illness?

Symptoms experienced by the birds have been described as horrifying.

  • An inability to swim due to loss of leg movement.

  • Continually shaking their their heads as they droop into the water.

  • Struggling to breathe due to lung paralysis.

  • Distressed from an inability to fly due to wing paralysis.

Ms Murphy describes the final stage of illness as “awful”. “This is when their head drops in the water and they are drowning,” she said. "They can't swim. They can't use their legs. They're trying to flap their wings to try and keep their head out of the water, but they can't lift themselves up.”

Concern duck disease could spread across city

Because the water in the lake has not yet been improved, Ms Murphy fears the disease could spread to other parts of the city.

“All of these birds can move. So the situation could be that we start picking up the bodies of ibis next week,” she said.

Ms Murphy believes there could be other bodies already dead across the city and then other animals could eat them. “This is how it spreads,” she said. “Whatever is in the gut of the bird will get eaten by maggots, and the magpies will come and eat them.”

She does not believe council are to blame for the situation, but she would like to see authorities act quickly, notify local veterinarians about the situation and raise awareness so people know to use caution in the area. During future hot weather spells, she would like to see council take a proactive approach to keeping the water levels high so the birds are kept alive.

Taronga Zoo, DPI, and EPA have been contacted for comment.

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