Valley drought, disease, shrunken habitats await migratory birds

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Great horned owls hang out at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. Swift, silent and scary, these winged terminators hunt critters at night. And duck is on the menu.

?Imagine if you?re a duck floating next to your pal and suddenly you find yourself alone,? said Jack Sparks, a recreation planner at the refuge. ?These owls swoop down and carry off ducks.?

Don?t be fooled by the happy honking geese and dancing sandhill cranes. This may seem like a happy winter pit stop for migrating birds, but owls and other predators can quickly deal a lethal blow to a good time. It?s a risk these birds face every year as they fly south from frigid Canada and Alaska.

But this year, predators may be the least of the worries for these birds. Starvation, avian cholera and botulism may be bigger killers than usual. It?s another dark twist from California?s destructive drought.

When the birds make their annual arrival this fall and winter after flying thousands of miles from the north, they will find drought-depleted wetlands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Authorities don?t have the water to maintain about half of the wetlands.

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