A mysterious, unidentified contagious disease is sickening and killing birds in Middle Atlantic states, and it is breaking the hearts of bird lovers who are being told to remove feeders and bird baths from their yards.
On July 1, the Pennsylvania Game Commission released an alert recommending that people remove their bird feeders and baths until it can figure out the root cause of a disease that is plaguing the songbird population in many states, including Pennsylvania. Some of the most affected are blue jays, starlings and common grackles, but so are robins, cardinals and European starlings.
Along with removing feeders and baths, the game commission and the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania recommended continued cleaning of feeders and baths with a 10 percent bleach solution.
The birds will not starve, but people will miss the peace and pleasure they get from watching the birds that regularly flock to their yards. Bird watching and sales of bird food bird increased dramatically during the pandemic as more people worked from their homes.
Sick and dying birds appear to have eye and neurological issues. Bird experts are hoping to stop the spread of the disease by stopping birds from congregating at bird feeders and bird baths.
The do-not-feed recommendation starts with the U.S. Geological Survey, which is leading an interagency initiative to document, monitor and report on the disease. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has issued the same advisory, and so have many other organizations, including the nonprofit American Bird Conservancy.
As of mid-July, research indicates birds are not dying from salmonella poisoning, avian influenza virus, West Nile virus, poxviruses nor any other “known pathogens,” said a recent news release from ABC. And there is no indication that people or pets are having “health issues reported in connection to this situation.”
The bad news is that no one knows why birds are dying or exactly how to prevent it.
“Earlier this spring, people across the Mid-Atlantic region started reporting an unusually large number of ill and dead birds,” says the ABC release.
The U.S. Geological Survey and ABC offer these tips:
- Avoid handling birds unless absolutely necessary. If you do handle them, wear disposable gloves.
- If picking up a dead bird, place an inverted plastic bag over your hand to avoid direct contact.
- Keep pets, including pet birds, away from sick or dead wild birds as a precaution.
Bird baths should be regularly cleaned with a solution that is one part bleach and nine parts water followed by a thorough rinse with water. The bird bath should be completely air dried before being refilled.
“Bird feeders are basically the kitchens and dining rooms of our backyards,” said Jordan Rutter, ABC’s director of public relations. “It would be hard for us to imagine not washing our dishes. We should think of bird feeders and bird baths in a similar way.”
Investigations are ongoing at a number of university laboratories, the National Park Service, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the USGS, state natural resource management agencies, and wildlife conservation agencies.
The public is encouraged to report the date, time and location of dead and sick birds at https://nationalzoo.si.edu/bird-report on the website of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Officials are not collecting dead birds from private citizens.
Regular bird watchers often claim they can recognize individual birds of the same species even though they look almost exactly like each other. They also have multiple feeders, each containing the type of food that specific birds eat.
ABC always has tips on helping birds at its website, abcbirds.org. Under the current threat in the Mid-Atlantic region, there are tips for helping birds.
In the summer, birds “are now more reliant on invertebrates,” which includes caterpillars, spiders and other insects, says ABC. “Incorporating native plants into your yard is a great option at any time.”
The plants provide birds with natural food, including nectar and berries, and attract the bugs that birds like to eat.