Captive-reared mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were used as sentinels to study the epizootiology of avian botulism at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Willows, California (USA) from 1986 to 1989. Sentinel mallards were wing-clipped, and 40 to 50 birds were confined in 1.6-ha enclosures in 11 selected wetlands (pools). Enclosures were searched intensively three to four times weekly from July through October. Sick and dead wild and sentinel birds were collected, necropsied, and tested for type C botulism toxin. Botulism epizootics occurred in sentinel mallards in 1986, 1987, and 1989, but only a few isolated cases of botulism were detected in 1988. In most epizootics, botulism also was detected simultaneously in wild birds using the same pool outside the enclosure. Epizootics in sentinels were initiated and perpetuated in the absence of vertebrate carcasses. A sex-specific trend in the probability of intoxication was detected, with males contracting botulism at a higher rate than females. Daily mortality rates of sentinels during botulism epizootics ranged from 0.0006 to 0.0600, with a mean of 0.0190. These rates would result in the daily loss of 0.6 to 60 birds per thousand at risk. The use of sentinel birds provided an effective means of gathering site-specific epizootiologic data.

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