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Mystery Bird Illness - What you can do to help

Aug 02, 2021


Following a year when the birds gave us so much solace and joy, seasoned birders and the thousands that discovered bird feeding in 2020 are learning about a new mystery illness that is now affecting our feathered friends. Birds in eleven states and Washington, D.C. are becoming sick and dying from what scientists are calling a “mortality event,” when animals die in a short period of time from what appears to be a similar cause.

Carla-Mason-1223Scientists are still trying to determine what is sickening and killing primarily young blue jays, grackles, starlings and robins. While there has been no evidence that this is contagious, or caused by anything related to bird feeding, people are being asked to refrain from feeding birds as a precautionary measure. The Department of Natural Resources in Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky have issued guidance to restrict feeding birds. As of July 14, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are also on the no-feed list, but no sick birds have been reported in either state. On July 28, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) issued a bit of good news, saying that the number of reported sick or dead birds has decreased since June.

This is what we know so far*:

  1. The disease presents itself as crusty eyes coupled with blindness. In addition, there is a neurological element that causes tremors and disorientation. The disease can be fatal as the birds may not be able to find food, defend themselves or fly.
  2. Common causes have been eliminated including Salmonella and Chlamydia (bacterial pathogens); avian influenza virus, West Nile virus and other flaviviruses, Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses, herpesviruses and poxviruses; and Trichomonas parasites.
  3. Besides blue jays, grackles, starlings and robins, it has been seen in limited amounts in such bird species as Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, House Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees and the Carolina Wrens.

Scientists continue to investigate many possibilities, even this spring’s eruption of 17-year cicadas, since their appearance began around the same time as reports of ill birds. Cicadas are known to carry a pathogenic fungus, although no connection has been found with the bird disease. On July 28, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called the emergence of the illness in the eleven states, "an exact replica of the cicada map,” so this theory appears to be the leading one at this time: “The decline in cases corresponds with the retreat of the cicadas. Although researchers will continue to monitor the situation, Bunton (of the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab) expressed that the outbreak should not be a cause of alarm.”**

What You Can Do

If you find a sick bird, make sure to report it to your wildlife agency and the Smithsonian National Zoo, which is tracking the data. You should not try to care for a sick or injured bird that you find, but instead, submit the date, location, bird age, species (if you know it) and a photo or video. Your discovery could be key in finding a cause!

Until the mystery is solved, there are things you can do in your backyard to continue to take care of your feathered friends and prepare for the time when we can start feeding them again:

  1. Birds are drawn to varied habitats and plantings, so consider putting in a few plants or shrubs that will turn your yard into a natural bird habitat; they will attract a greater number and variety of birds, make your yard a healthier place for the planet, and will enhance the beauty of your landscape!
  2. To prevent spoilage, store any unused bird food in an airtight container; heavy-duty plastic zip bags, sturdy plastic bins, and galvanized metal cans are popular bird seed storage containers. By keeping it in a cool, dry location such as a garage or basement, bird seed can last well over a year.
  3. Give the eventual return to bird feeding a fresh start by sweeping up and cleaning your bird feeding areas of discarded seed. Perhaps invest in a new feeder to welcome the birds back!

Some have suggested that if people do continue bird feeding, that they make sure to clean feeders and baths once a day with a 10% bleach to water solution (see illustration below). While it has not yet been determined if the bird disease is contagious, you should always wash your hands with soap and water after dealing with birds, feeders and bird baths.

We are hopeful that by working together with scientists, we will discover the reason behind this event, and get back to seeing our bird populations healthy and happy – which, as we know, brightens our days as well.

*“What we know about the mystery bird death crisis on the East Coast,” National Geographic, July 15, 2021

**Ithaca.com, July 28, 2021

Photos by Carla Mason