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Blame those gull-darn birds, not Milwaukee, for beach closings
Chicago Sun Times
Published July 4, 2005

Can't go swimming in the lake this summer because the beach is closed? Well, it's likely due to the birds, and this isn't something that the late director Alfred Hitchcock made up. Those gulls we watch sweeping gracefully over the water caught on wind currents, those gulls we indulge with little crumbs of bread or leftovers from our picnics, are very dirty little critters. They're mainly responsible for the rise in E. coli bacteria in Lake Michigan and the beach closings.

For years, we've dumped on Milwaukee for befouling the water of Lake Michigan and raising the E. coli bacteria levels in the summer to dangerous highs. It's true that the beer-barreled city to our north has been allowing raw sewage to seep into the lake, particularly after heavy rainstorms. And this sometimes happens in Chicago. But raw sewage is only a small part of why our beaches have been closed two dozen times this season. The real culprits are the gulls.

A 2003 study determined bird droppings were to blame for 63 percent of the E. coli found at three Lake County beaches. Another study at Chicago's 63rd Street Beach found gulls were the cause for many beach closings.

Our forebears at the turn of the last century kept the gull population at bay by eating gull eggs and wearing gull feathers in their hats. But the gull population has risen steadily over the last few decades. In 1970, there were 300,000 nesting pairs on the entire Great Lakes system, aquatic biologist Mark Pfister of the Lake County Health Department told Sun-Times health reporter Lori Rackl. Now there are 800,000. "Consider that 1 gram of gull feces can contain over 325 million E. coli," Pfister said. "That's a lot of E. coli just sitting there, waiting to be washed in by the waves and wind." E. coli can cause an upset stomach, and it can be life-endangering.

The gulls like to feast on the food littered along our beaches. "It's a smorgasbord," says Cameron Davis, director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. We like to feed the birds, and we don't pick up our garbage, so we inadvertently keep inviting them back to our sandy lakeside areas.

The city plans to address the problem by stringing wires above lakefront areas to prevent the birds from landing, replacing beach trash cans with lidded containers and finding speedier ways to test the water, also looking at the levels of enterococci bacteria. The city will survey swimmers this summer about their health.

We can do a great deal ourselves to keep our lake clean. Swimmers can take a shower before heading to the lake -- our bodies carry E. coli. Rule-breaking boaters can stop dumping waste directly into the lake, and parents can throw their kids' diapers into the garbage, not onto the sand. First and foremost, we need to stop feeding those darned gulls. They are raining on our parade.

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