For the Birds Radio Program: Bitten by a Bird Bug

Original Air Date: Sept. 26, 1990

Laura got deathly ill from the bite of a louse that had been on a sick Sanderling. (date verified.)

Audio missing


Two weeks ago, I had three Sanderlings in my bathtub—three sick Sanderlings that had been feeding in the contaminated waters of the Duluth-Superior harbor after raw sewage and garbage, including medical waste, had been washed into the lake during a series of autumn storms. All three Sanderlings had lice and mites—these critters multiply quickly when a bird is too weak to properly preen. And one of the lice actually bit me, something that’s never happened before. The weakest and sickest of the birds, the one whose louse bit me, died after just a few days, but the other two felt a lot better after eating $15.00 worth of brine shrimp, and were finally released.

Three days after the Sanderlings came, I got sick. At first, we thought it was just the flu, but after running a fever for a day, I started feeling uneasy, remembering that lousy bite. So I went to the doctor, who ran some standard blood tests. My white count was normal, as were the two smears they took, so I went home pretty much reassured that this was just the flu.

But another couple of days went by, the Sanderling died, and my fever was still climbing. I was having difficulty breathing, and was actually starting to hallucinate, so back to the doctor we went. She looked up Psittacosis, or “parrot fever,” which causes the same symptoms I had, and discovered that victims show normal white counts and smears. A few other bacterial diseases that birds occasionally transmit to humans also don’t show up on standard blood tests.

Meanwhile, a healthy nighthawk with a busted wing that I’d been caring for suddenly died–he’d been getting amoxycillin, so if he and I were sick from the same thing, we knew it wouldn’t respond to that. I was getting sicker by the hour, so my doctor started me on tetracycline. The fever kept climbing, and my breaths became so shallow that my husband stayed awake half the night to make sure I didn’t stop breathing altogether. In the middle of the night, the tetracycline finally brought the fever down, and although it took several days to get my strength back and for my breathing to get back to normal, I’m pretty much over the whole ordeal. My family, none of whom handled the Sanderlings, didn’t get sick at all. Now, when I tuck my kids in, I say, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bird bugs bite.”

As horrible as this was for me, it was the Sanderling and the nighthawk who actually ended up dying. In the 90s, it’s a heck of a lot harder to survive when you’re a bird than a person. Dozens of shorebirds have been found dead or dying in Duluth during the past few weeks, but hardly anyone gave a tinker’s dam about them until I got sick. Issues of human health are obviously and rightly of greater concern to humans than issues of bird health. But that doesn’t mean birds are worthless. People may value gold more than silver, but a gold miner doesn’t toss out silver nuggets because they’re not gold.

Lake Superior is the largest, and should be the cleanest, lake in the world. Migrating shorebirds resting on her shores have enough worries trying to find food and avoid Peregrine Falcons and foxes without having to lug around water purification kits besides. Meanwhile, we humans continue to swim and boat in Lake Superior, to eat her fish and draw our drinking water from her, all the while leaking our wastes into her and trusting that human beings are a bit sturdier than Sanderlings.