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Auburn club aids in tick/bird study.

Byline: Mark Blazis


Capturing, examining and analyzing tens of thousands of migratory songbirds, our local bird-banding research team currently based at the Auburn Sportsman's Club has been at the forefront of efforts to determine the role of birds in the spread of Lyme disease.

We've learned the answers to several fundamental questions over the last 20 years here. The fact that our research was accomplished with the support of local sportsmen makes the effort all the more remarkable.

Back in the 1990s, Dr. Richard Weagle persuaded the Auburn Sportsman's Club to open its property for our research, providing a scientific classroom for the local community and its schools, too. Thousands of visitors have observed the research since.

Not long after beginning work, we had member J.J. White banding bluebirds from the nest boxes there. Old and loveable Stanley Rutkiewicz sewed the bags that we would use to transport birds from our capture nets to the banding table at the club porch. "Doc" Weagle became a regular fixture recording our data to present to medical researchers, state and federal government agencies. What a sight it was - scientists, students, naturalists, and sportsmen, all rubbing shoulders.

Getting down to business, we first wanted to know whether birds were carrying ticks during migration. Meticulously analyzing each and every bird's skin, particularly around their vulnerable eyes and at the corners of their mouths, we indeed found ticks the size of pepper grains.

Removing the nymphs and larvae to send out for analysis was the first of many tasks to teach my team. We soon confirmed the suspicion that some, but not all, birds carry ticks. Those that are infested by ticks frequent the shrub/brush habitat of mice and deer. Canopy-dwellers and aquatic birds are largely tick-free.

Ticks seek mammalian blood where it's most abundant - in dense cover on the ground. Though ticks prefer mammals, they readily grasp birds and other animals that pass through that same habitat.

We found that local bird species most frequently infested by ticks include the low-foraging grouse, turkey, chickadee, house wren, gray catbird, brown thrasher, robin, wood thrush, hermit thrush, Swainson's thrush, veery, yellow warbler, ovenbird, northern waterthrush, Connecticut warbler, mourning warbler, common yellowthroat, goldfinch, rufous-sided towhee, field sparrow, white-throated sparrow, swamp sparrow and song sparrow.

We learned that not all of our local tick species infest birds. Big dog ticks, the kind most pet owners are all too familiar with, seldom feed on birds. The highly efficient, villainous vector of Lyme disease and parasite of birds is almost exclusively Ixodes scapularis, the much smaller black-legged or deer tick. You can readily distinguish the two species by looking at their mouthparts with a magnifying glass. Deer tick mandibles are proportionately very long; dog tick mandibles are comparatively short.

With the laboratory analysis provided by Yale School of Public Health project leader Dr. Maria Duik-Wasser and her team of Dr. Jory Brinkerhoff and Dr. Corrie Folsom, we've found far fewer ticks on our local birds than on birds at the coast, owing to greater tick-favoring humidity and greater densities of tick-carrying deer there.

About 10 percent of all our locally captured birds with ticks and 80 percent of mice with ticks proved infected. In the expanded study of 479 birds carrying ticks, 81 were infected. Most recently in Auburn, 13 of 68 birds carrying ticks were infected. The closer to the coast, the higher the infection rates.

Analysis of bacterial DNA in the ticks' guts revealed several mutations or strains of the disease-causing pathogen. That discovery had several human health implications. Different strains could have a range of virulences, possibly explaining why different people have varying reactions to the infection. That, in turn, may mean that there could be different treatments for an infection.

We learned that abundant deer ticks equate to higher incidences of Lyme disease. In any given week, a white tail deer can carry up to 300 ticks here. Excessive tick populations go hand-in-hand with excessive mouse and deer populations.

Areas like nonhunted sanctuaries - Ipswich, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard - and anti-hunting communities east of I-495 are the most notorious danger zones because of those factors. Mouse populations are mostly affected by food availability. Good acorn years, for example, result in their populations exploding. Since deer ticks need good populations of mice and deer to complete their life cycle, keeping those populations reasonable with sufficient hunting can significantly reduce Lyme disease infections. Eliminating white tailed deer, however, would not totally eliminate the problem.

Although we can greatly reduce the incidence of Lyme disease by reducing deer numbers, Dr. Peter Rand of the Maine Medical Center in Portland found that even when all the deer were removed from Monhegan Island, some ticks still persisted. Migratory birds perennially deposit new ticks in migration, and feral cats can provide them with blood. At best, we can hope to minimize the incidence of the disease with sound wildlife-management policies.

For me, one of the greatest lessons from our local research has been that sportsmen, naturalists and scientists can work together to the greater benefit of all. In making its valuable contribution, the Auburn Sportsman's Club has proven a role model for the entire country, helping ameliorate needlessly harmful and counterproductive misperceptions between sportsmen and naturalists, both groups of which have many wonderful people within their ranks. It's worth a membership there just to be part of this unique happening.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 21, 2012
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