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Mystery Solved in the Case of Dying Shorebird Babies

Humans aren’t the only ones flocking to southwest Florida beaches this summer: it’s peak breeding season for black skimmers. A state-threatened species, they nest in large colonies of up to several hundred birds. Their Florida nesting season typically lasts from early May through September. But the 2020 and 2021 nesting seasons provided fatal for many young black skimmers, alarming and perplexing researchers.

Black skimmer fledgling displaying signs of severe bacterial infection in joint of leg (Photo Credit: Jean Hall).

In 2020, 50% of hatch-year birds died at Florida’s largest skimmer colony within the Big Marco Pass Critical Wildlife Area. In 2021, 35% of hatch-year birds died at Big Marco Pass and 20% died at a second colony on Carlos Beach in Ft. Myers. Typically, chick mortality rates can range from 10% to 30% in relatively stable and undisturbed conditions.

The young birds at all affected locations had one thing in common: they suffered from sandspur punctures. Many presented with swollen feet that made it difficult to walk.

In response, our Foundation granted FWC $33,200 from our Conserve Wildlife specialty license plate to identify the cause of the infections and develop strategies to protect the state-threatened population. FWC’s study recently concluded that sandspur injuries introduced staphylococcus typically found on the skin of the skimmer chicks internally, causing their death. The study recommends the regular removal of sandspurs from nesting areas and the restoration of native vegetation to prevent future deaths.

Consistent access to funds for this type of research is crucial to problem-solving efforts for our ever-changing world. By purchasing a Conserve Wildlife license plate, you generate funds for organizations like FWC to perform these necessary studies and save imperiled species.

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