The bitterly cold winter has killed hundreds of ducks in southern Ontario and upstate New York, wildlife conservationists say, as frozen ice covering the vast majority of the Great Lakes has made it impossible for many waterfowl to dive for food.

Scott Petrie, the executive director of the conservation group Long Point Waterfowl, says in the 17 years he has studied waterfowl he has never seen so many die in one season.

"All of sudden you get a really harsh winter and there just isn’t enough food for these birds to make it through," Petrie told CTV Kitchener.

Petrie and his coworkers have been studying dozens of dead Lake Ontario waterfowl at his organization’s lab in Port Rowan, Ont., about two hours southwest of Toronto.

Many of the dead waterfowl, such as mute swans and red-breasted mergansers, have completely starved to death.

The winter in southern Ontario has been so cold that 92.2 per cent of the Great Lakes’ surface was covered in ice in early March, just short of the record 94.7 per cent set in 1979. In most years, there are periods of freezing and thawing, but that generally hasn’t been the case this winter.

Petrie says the dead birds were not able to dive below the frozen ice to find the small fish they normally rely on to survive.

Ted Barney, a biologist with Long Point Waterfowl, said many of the dead birds had relied on their own body mass to stay alive.

"And they get to a point where there is no more muscle mass left for them to use as energy," Barney told CTV Kitchener.

There have been other reports of ducks dying from starvation in the Lake Huron and Georgian Bay areas as well.

Researchers in Buffalo, N.Y., have also seen hundreds of dead waterfowl, and discovered that many of the birds had high levels of toxins in their bodies as they were forced to eat zebra mussels instead of small fish. Zebra mussels filter toxins from the water and pass them up the food chain.

Researchers, however, don’t expect the deaths to have a major impact on the overall waterfowl population, and despite some people’s inclination to help the hungry ducks, Petrie advises not to feed the birds and rather let nature take its course.

With files from CTV Kitchener and The Associated Press