BALTIMORE, Md. — For nature’s flying, feathered friends, bird-friendly gardens, like the one in Patterson Park in Baltimore, can offer comfort and refuge. Lately, though, some wild birds are experiencing anything but that.
“They were showing symptoms, mostly having crusty eyes and neurological symptoms, too,” said David Curson, director of bird conservation with Audubon Mid-Atlantic. “So, showing lethargy, twitchiness in their bodies, and disorientation.”
In pictures provided by the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, which has been treating some of the sick birds, the symptoms can be obvious. Most of the ill birds die within days.
“It's a mystery illness,” Curson said. “There are wildlife disease labs around the country working on trying to figure out what the illness is. They have been analyzing corpses of dead birds that have been sent to them.”
Reports of the mystery bird illness first emerged in May in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. However, it appears to be spreading, with wildlife officials now finding similar sick birds in West Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida.
“So far, at least 1,000 birds have been affected,” Curson said. “And it's probably quite a few thousand when you consider the large geographic area.”
Scientists have ruled out West Nile virus and avian flu but otherwise remain stumped.
“The most common species that have been affected so far are common grackles, American robins, blue jays, and European starlings,” Curson said. “So, common birds that are likely to come to your feeder.”
That is why experts are now recommending everyone in the affected areas remove their bird feeders.
“Many people worry that the birds are depending on them. And what I would say is that it's midsummer and there was a huge amount of natural food around,” Curson said, “and these birds really don't need your human bird feeders at this time.”
By removing the bird feeders, it could prevent the potential spread to other places of the mystery disease among any birds that might congregate there.
“People who appreciate birds and love birds and like watching birds really need to be convincing the birds to socially distance right now,” said Tony Brusate, president of the Central Kentucky Audubon Society.
In addition to taking down bird feeders, experts also recommend:
- Cleaning bird feeders with a 10% bleach solution, to kill off any potential pathogen
- Don’t handle any dead birds or ones showing symptoms of the illness
- Wear rubber gloves if handling any sick birds
- Keep your pets away from birds showing symptoms
- Report sick birds to state fish and wildlife agencies
“I think the last year has told us that we need to think a lot more about diseases in general than we have been used to doing,” Curson said. “Disease pathogens evolve and mutations can create new versions of them. So, we don't want to be alarmist, but I think it's really important to take a precautionary approach.”
It’s an approach that could help ensure the sound of songbirds doesn’t fade away.