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Freshwater Flows May Be Causing Birds To Eat Harmful Fish

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Audrey Albrecht
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Recent water releases from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River could be the indirect cause of a disfigurement in some shore birds along Florida’s Gulf Coast. WGCU reported in March about royal terns spotted in Southwest Florida with, what looked like, possible third beaks.But experts now say those could actually be their tongues.

About four months ago, someone on Sanibel Island photographed two royal terns with an orange protrusion curving up from underneath their regular bills. Renowned ornithologist and retired Florida Gulf Coast University professor Dr. Jerry Jacksonfirst speculated that the deformities could be extra bills growing from pollution exposure in the Gulf.

But since then, about a couple dozen people across the state sent Jackson photos from their encounters with these birds in Lee, Collier and even Miami-Dade Counties' estuaries. Now Jackson said he thinks the increased freshwater from Lake Okeechobee muddied the estuaries so much, these birds are accidentally eating fish they should not be—fish with sharp spines that puncture holes under their beaks and cause their tongues to fall through.

"The birds can’t see the fish. They can see the fish's back, but they can’t really tell what it is. And they may just be getting something that has those spines and is causing this injury to them," said Dr. Jackson. 

But Dr. Jackson has not seen one of these birds in person, yet. He’s basing this theory on research and photographs from the public. Jackson said he needs more photos to figure this out. You can email any photos or information to 

Jackson also said it would be interesting to look inside the royal terns’ stomachs to see if the cause is there. 

Last week, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Lee, Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach Counties following toxic algae blooms that spread in the Atlantic Coast through freshwater flows.

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Consideredfor WGCU News.