Assorted bird species congregate on the eastern shore of the lake at Hollenbeck. Several ducks were reported dead in and around the park in early September. Photo by Andrew Lopez for Boyle Heights Beat.

After a few weeks of mystery surrounding the deaths of seven ducks at Hollenbeck Park, officials are ruling out avian flu from the equation.

Signs warning park patrons about the presence of blue algae and avian influenza in the area. Photos by Andrew Lopez for Boyle Heights Beat.

Signage posted by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and the Hollenbeck Recreation Center suggested that the waterfowl were sick with avian flu, but testing done by the county’s Veterinary Public Health program resulted in a negative test for influenza. 

However, two birds at Lincoln Park in nearby Lincoln Heights did recently test positive for low-level traces of H6N2, a strain of avian influenza that is not normally seen to cause major sickness in birds or humans. 

Although the Veterinary Public Health program of Los Angeles County doesn’t have the resources to do toxicology tests on the deceased birds, Director Dr. Karen Ehnert said that the presence of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, might be the culprit.

“Right now we can’t say what happened. But I am strongly suspicious that it was an algal bloom,”  Ehnert said. “And if we have warm weather and the water is somewhat stagnant, it’s going to come back again. So it’s likely we’re going to see it more often locally.”

An egret stands on the shore of Hollenbeck Park lake.

The duck deaths were reported last month. Some Boyle Heights residents have voiced concern as to if the deceased birds had actually been poisoned, but testing for poison during necropsies can cost the Veterinary Public Health program thousands of dollars per animal tested, according to Ehnert.

Rec and Parks treated Hollenbeck Park’s lake with algaecides to remove the blue-green algae on September 6th and said the treatment has shown positive results, with no ducks being found dead since. 

Rec and Parks will also request the Department of Sanitation to test the water again in a few weeks.

A couple walking the perimeter of Hollenbeck Park lake path.

Julio Morales, 72, is from Highland Park and visits Hollenbeck frequently. He said he was concerned about the water quality and thinks it’s in the city’s best interest to treat the algae.

“It’s got to be tested because after so many parts per million it’s not good for birds or for humans. They can carry diseases and carry bacteria,” he said. 

The health of wildlife in Boyle Heights’ urban landscape also troubled Dr. Eric Wood, an associate professor of ecology at Cal State LA. He attributed the health of the birds at Hollenbeck to the polluted environment they live in.

“If there is blue algae and if the water quality is bad, there’s going to be all sorts of stuff in there. Bacteria and other things that are potentially not going to be good for wildlife and for people,” Wood said. 

Considering how common it is to see people feeding birds seeds or breadcrumbs at Hollenbeck, Wood also said that non-natural diets for wild animals also negatively impacts their health.

“Staying wild is going to be better for them because they’re going to get different food sources that are going to benefit their health better than just eating loaves of Wonder Bread. That’s not what they’re programmed to eat,” Wood added. 

Through the availability of human food, birds can sustain themselves and transmit viruses within their flocks longer if avian influenza was eventually introduced by a migrating bird. Such an event could cause another wave of die offs, especially if the disease was the more deadly H5N1 avian flu.

Geese swimming in Hollenbeck Park lake.

Although city birds live and adapt under freeways or roost above historic apartment complexes, the health of its wildlife can speak to the health of a city.

“Birds tell you the health of the environment,” Wood said. “So that’s going to also tell you, ‘Are we living in a healthy environment for people, too?”

Authorities ask residents who see sick or dead birds at a Los Angeles park to contact Los Angeles County Veterinary Public Health at (213) 288‐7060 or the California WNV Dead Bird Hotline at (877) 968‐2473.

Andrew Lopez is a Los Angeles native with roots all over the eastside. He studied Humanities at Pasadena City College and transferred to San Francisco State University to study Broadcast and Electronic...

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