Mysterious Bird Disease – Take Down Your Feeders

August 22 Update:   Cornell University is still advising that, although the cause of the illness is still undetermined, cases are declining.  Wildlife authorities in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as the Audubon Societies in Maryland and Rhode Island, have lifted their advisories regarding bird feeders and bird baths (Nimmo, 2021; Audubon Society of Rhode Island, 2021; Wildlife Center of Virginia, 2021;  WeinGartner, 2021).   We are requested to continue regular cleaning of baths and feeders, using a 10 percent bleach solution.

July 31 Update:  The illness is being reported in some Illinois counties where it had previously not been detected (Smith, 2021).  Reports of infected birds are continuing to decline in Pennsylvania, along with Virginia and Kentucky  (KDKA, 2021).

However, the Audubon Society is advising that the cause of the illness is still unknown.   This is a particularly sensitive time, as many of our bird species will be departing on their annual migrations to Central and South America, and there is great concern that – if this disease is contagious – that it might be spread to native bird populations there.  We will probably be requested to refrain from using our bird feeders and bird baths through the month of August (Gerrity, 2021).

July 30 Update:  News sources in Virginia and Kentucky are reporting sharp declines in reported cases of the illness that’s been affecting the mid-Atlantic and midwest states (INSIDENOVA, 2021; Times-Tribune, 2021).  As yet, the illness has not been reported in New England or west of Illinois.

Although this is encouraging news, the cause of this die-off of wild songbirds still has not been identified and it is still to be determined whether infected birds are contagious.  So wildlife authorities throughout the affected states, and the surrounding states – including New England – are asking that we continue to take down our feeders and bird baths.

July 29 Update: Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the College of Veterinary Medicine is reporting that cases of the songbird illness are declining and the mortality rates are decreasing; and that bird populations are stable.

July 28 Update:

The songbird illness continues to take toll on our wild bird population, and is now reported in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.  It has not been reported in New England, or states west of  Illinois, although residents of the surrounding states are being advised to take down their feeders and bird baths as a means of limiting birds congregating and reducing the spread of the disease.

The cause is still unknown, however scientists have eliminated known bird viruses and the bacterium that have caused previous similar outbreaks.  The recent cicada brood hatching also appears to be unrelated to this disease, as it is being found in areas where the cicadas didn’t appear.  At this point, twelve bird species have been found to be affected:  the blue jay, European sterling, grackle, American robin, northern cardinal, house finch, house sparrow, eastern bluebird, willow tit, Carolina chickadee, and mayow tit (Patterson, 2021).

There is some speculation that the illness may be caused by toxins associated with invasive insect species, perhaps in concert with invasive plant species (Abbott, 2021).  However this seems unlikely to be the case, as the illness would probably have been known to exist in the overseas locations where these species are native.  However, the idea that a toxin is somehow involved would seem to explain why the disease mostly affects young birds, which would have been fed high concentrations of local seeds or insects.

July 11, 2021:

In the past few weeks, a new deadly disease has emerged on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, affecting a wide variety of songbirds.   Scientists are still trying to determine the nature of the illness and how it is transmitted, and whether it is a new virus or a fungal infection, but it is causing thousands of deaths across a wide range of unrelated bird species, including robins, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers,  and others (Malakoff & Stokeland, 2021).

This infected bird was found in Washington  DC  in May of this year

The symptoms include crusted and inflamed eyes and the neurological symptoms include inability to stand and head tremors.  The birds are unable to fly or feed themselves and eventually die.
The disease was first noted in the Washington DC area in May of this year (USGS, 2021), but rapidly spread to the adjacent states.  It is now appearing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and is continuing to spread.  Although the nature of the illness is still unknown, based on its rapid spread throughout the eastern and midwestern states, it appears to be highly contagious across a wide range of bird species (Zenkevitch, 2021; ).

We can help to limit the spread of the disease by reducing the number of places where songbirds congregate and are likely to infect each other.  State authorities, even in areas such as the New England states in which the disease has not yet been found, are asking that we take down our bird feeders and bird baths until the disease has subsided, and that they be thoroughly cleaning with a 10 percent bleach solution before being put back in use (RI DEM, 2021; AP, 2021).

This isn’t a lot to ask.  If we’re feeding the birds because we want them to be well fed and we enjoy having them in our lives then, until this disease runs its course, it makes sense for us to encourage them to look for natural sources of food and not congregate in large numbers at a common feeding site.  Our wild bird populations are already under stress from climate change and loss of habitat.  There is no reason for us to add to that by facilitating the spread of a disease.  Lets take down our feeders and bird baths, clean them thoroughly, and wait until we hear that its safe to put the up again.

Abbott, B. (July 27, 2021).  Opinion:  Seeking to Solve Mystery Songbird Illness.  CTPost.  Retrieved from www.ctpost.com/opinion/article/Opinion-Seeking-to-solve-mystery-songbird-illness-16342822.php

Associated Press (July 8, 2021).  Residents Told to Stop Filling Feeders to Avert Bird Illness.  Retrieved from apnews.com/article/ct-state-wire-birds-health-environment-and-nature-412ec4d6d2ec8c1c23f772a577795394

Audubon Society of Rhode Island (August 20, 2021) Bird Feeding Can Resume in Rhode Island.  Retrieved from asri.org/news-events/2021/audubon-monitoring-bird-illness-in-mid-atlantic.html 

Fisher, F.  (July 27, 2021).  Cornell experts not overly alarmed by mysterious songbird sickness.  Retrieved from www.ithaca.com/news/ithaca/cornell-experts-not-overly-alarmed-by-mysterious-songbird-sickness/article_ae73fa12-efc6-11eb-9a3f-ef82b40e923f.html

Gerrity, K.  (July 30, 2021) An Update From The Connecticut Audubon Society About Bird Disease.  Patch.  Retrieved from  patch.com/connecticut/essex-chester-deepriver/update-connecticut-audubon-society-bird-disease/  

INSIDENOVA (July 29, 2021).  Mystery songbird illnesses, deaths improving in Northern Virginia. Retrieved from Mystery songbird illnesses, deaths improving in Northern Virginia | Headlines | insidenova.com

KDKA (July 31, 2021).  Reports Of Illnesses In Songbirds Declining After Mysterious Disease Caused Dozens Of Deaths.  Retrieved from pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2021/07/31/reports-of-illnesses-in-songbirds-declining-after-mysterious-disease-caused-dozens-of-deaths/ 

Malakoff, D. and Stokeland, E. (Jul 6, 2021).  Songbirds are Mysteriously Dying Across the Eastern U.S.  Scientists are Scrambling to Find Out Why.  Science Magazine.  Retrieved from Songbirds are mysteriously dying across the eastern U.S. Scientists are scrambling to find out why | Science | AAAS (sciencemag.org)

Nimmo, T. (August 20, 2021). Kentuckians can put bird feeders back outside after mystery illness.  WCPO.  Retrieved from www.wcpo.com/news/state/state-kentucky/kentuckians-can-put-bird-feeders-back-outside-after-mystery-illness 

Patterson, R. (nd).  Don’t Feed the Birds!  PA.  The Mysterious Death of a Songbird in Japan Sparks and Investigation.  Pennsylvania News Today.  Retrieved from pennsylvanianewstoday.com/dont-feed-the-birds-pa-the-mysterious-death-of-a-songbird-in-japan-sparks-an-investigation-life/183199/

Rhode Island DEM, Division of Fish and Wildlife (July 8, 2021). Wildlife Health Alert.  Retrieved from www.facebook.com/RIFishwildlife/

Smith, K. (July, 30, 2021).  First cases of mystery songbird illness seen in suburban wildlife centers.  Daily Herald.  Retrieved from www.dailyherald.com/news/20210730/first-cases-of-mystery-songbird-illness-seen-in-suburban-wildlife-centers/

Times-Tribune (July 29, 2021).  Kentucky Fish and Wildlife provides update about bird illness investigation.  Retrieved from Kentucky Fish and Wildlife provides update about bird illness investigation   | Local News | thetimestribune.com

USGS (July 2, 2021).  UPDATED Interagency Statement:  USGS and Partners Continue Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event.  Retrieved from UPDATED Interagency Statement: USGS and Partners Continue Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event

Weingartner, T. (August 20, 2021).  As ‘Mystery’ Bird Illness Continues, Some in Tri-State May Put Bird Feeders Back Out With Precautions.  WVXU.  Retrieved from www.wvxu.org/environment/2021-08-20/mystery-bird-illness-bird-feeders 

Wildlife Center of Virginia (August 20, 2021).  Update of 2021 Avian Unusual Mortality Event.  Retrieved from www.wildlifecenter.org/news_events/news/update-2021-avian-unusual-mortality-event

Zenkevich, J. (July 7, 2021).  M ore Than 1,000 cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported in Pennsylvania.  WESA.  Retrieved from More than 1,000 Cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported In Pennsylvania | 90.5 WESA

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