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Great Lakes' Near-Record Ice Cover Makes For 'Unprecedented' Number Of Duck Deaths

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A dead red-breasted merganser duck sits on an examine table at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's wildlife health unit on Thursday, March 6, 2014, in Delmar, N.Y. Hundreds of fish-eating ducks, mostly red-breasted mergansers, have been found dead along lakes Erie and Ontario, where unusually heavy ice cover has made it hard for the birds to get the minnows they depend on. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
A dead red-breasted merganser duck sits on an examine table at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's wildlife health unit on Thursday, March 6, 2014, in Delmar, N.Y. Hundreds of fish-eating ducks, mostly red-breasted mergansers, have been found dead along lakes Erie and Ontario, where unusually heavy ice cover has made it hard for the birds to get the minnows they depend on. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Turns out there's a dark side to the Great Lakes' near-record ice coverage this winter.

The season's bitter temperatures throughout most of the region have coincided with an "unprecedented" number of water birds such as ducks starving to death, biologists say.

Connie Adams with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation recently told the Associated Press their office's weekly counts of waterfowl along the Niagara River corridor from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario are down tens of thousands this winter.

The carcasses Adams' Buffalo, N.Y. office have examined have empty stomachs and are about half the weight they should be, according to the AP.

Similar observations are being noted elsewhere in the region. Along the frozen shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, hundreds of waterfowl are estimated to have died this winter. Field Museum research assistant Josh Engel told the Chicago Tribune he had collected some 30 dead ducks over just a couple of days last week.

"It’s sort of hard to go out and see — you can practically see them dying," Engel told the Tribune.

The unusually high amounts of ice are to blame for the deaths as it is cutting off the food source for the fish-eating birds, many of which migrated to the Great Lakes from northern Canada and Alaska for the winter.

The birds typically survive the region's winters -- which in the past have had enough thawing periods so that the birds can seek out enough sustenance -- but this winter has been different.

The Great Lakes were more frozen as of last week than they had been in 35 years, with 92.2 percent of the lakes' surface covered in ice. Lake Michigan recorded its highest ice coverage percentage on record when 93.29 percent of the body of water froze over.

"The birds aren't necessarily used to something this cold, especially down here... it's sad to see them die," wildlife biologist Dianne Robinson of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told CBS Milwaukee, noting hundreds of ducks have also died in the Milwaukee area.

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