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Birds Are Dying And Scientists Don’t Know Why

Birds Are Dying And Scientists Don’t Know Why

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Since May, thousands of birds across 11 states and Washington D.C. have sickened and died, and no one knows why. The illness is so sudden that scientists don’t yet know what’s killing the birds or how to prevent it, but they know it’s contagious and spreading quickly.

Sick birds have eyes that are swollen, oozing, or crusty, and have trouble seeing. They exhibit neurological symptoms such as head tilting and tremors, and have difficulty balancing, walking, and flying.

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The birds affected are those that commonly visit bird feeders, including American robins, blue jays, common grackles, northern cardinals, and European starlings; a total of 12 species of birds from 10 different bird families.

The states where sick and dead birds are being found are Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the Washington D.C. area.

Right now scientists in those states are asking the public to remove their bird feeders because they believe that may be how the illness is being spread. There’s no evidence that whatever this sickness is affects humans or animals other than birds.

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The U.S.G.S. National Wildlife Health Center, based in Reston, Virginia, has been testing dead birds, and while they do not yet know what is causing the birds to die, they’ve ruled out a number of diseases:

“The following pathogens have not been detected in any birds tested, based on results received to date: 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. Transmission electron microscopy and additional diagnostic tests, including microbiology, virology, parasitology, and toxicology are ongoing.”

There is speculation that the illness may be connected to the appearance of the Brood X periodical cicadas, but nothing has been proven yet.

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There are important ways that bird lovers can help slow the spread of this disease:

If you live in any of the above states, remove bird feeders immediately, and suggest everyone you know who feeds birds do the same. Watch the birds in your yard and report any sick or dead birds that have crusting around their eyes or neurological symptoms to your local game commission, or state or district wildlife conservation agency.

In my area, the Pennsylvania Game Commission issued these recommendations:

  • Take bird-feeders down to increase "social distancing" in birds in order to reduce the potential risk of disease spread.
  • Wash feeders and bird baths and soak them in a 10% bleach solution before putting back out after this problem is over.
  • Wear disposable gloves to collect any dead birds, and place them in plastic bags for disposal in trash.
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after handling birds or feeders.

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If you don’t live in the affected states, watch the birds at your feeders, and report any sick or dead birds with the above symptoms to your local wildlife conservation agency, especially if you live in states adjacent to those affected. Since not everyone is aware of the problem, contact family and friends living in the affected states and urge them to remove their bird feeders.

One thing we gardeners can always do to help wildlife is to landscape for them by planting perennials, shrubs, and trees that can offer food for birds in lieu of feeders.


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