CLEVELAND — Ohio wildlife officials are warning the public as scientists continue to investigate a mysterious illness that has left hundreds of songbirds dead across six states, including southwest and central Ohio. The illness, which has been detected in neighboring states like Indiana and Kentucky, has been confirmed in several species, including blue jays, robins and sparrows.
Other species to be infected include common grackles and European starlings.
The strange illness was first spotted in the Washington D.C. area in late May but it has also been detected in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Wildlife officials in multiple states have sent deceased birds to research labs, which have not reached a consensus on what the illness is or how it spreads.
"There are so many more questions than answers right now," said Jamey Emmert, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. "There are no indications of what it could be. There are a lot of theories out there as to what might have caused this illness but nothing is [substantial] right now. We have no idea right now what could be causing this."
Emmert said state wildlife officials are asking for the public's help in monitoring the local bird population and attempting to mitigate the spread of the disease. Currently, there are no confirmed cases of the strange illness in the Northeast Ohio region. However, there have been suspected cases in central and southern Ohio.
Wildlife officials are asking people who live in affected areas to temporarily take down any bird feeders and bird baths to prevent birds from congregating in confined spaces, much like social distancing measures that were implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. For those that are living in areas where the disease has not been detected, Emmert said people can still have their bird baths and bird feeders up after a thorough cleaning using a 10 percent bleach mixture.
Emmert said the disease's symptoms can be easily spotted.
"People need to be looking for symptoms like crusty eyes. When the bird was seen alive, if it was dropping its head like it couldn't hold its head up or it didn't have the ability to fly properly, those are the symptoms that we are primarily looking for," Emmert said. "We encourage the public to help us and the public is already doing that by making reports. Our 1-800-WILDLIFE hotline is already overwhelmed with people just calling and asking questions and also reports of sick or deceased birds."
Because there is still so much to learn about the mysterious illness, Emmert said ornithologists and biologists have not been able to narrow down the species most at risk. It is possible that the disease is impacting other species of birds that typically do not nest in urban or populated areas.
"In some sense, it doesn't surprise us that these species are being reported because they're in urban areas," Emmert said. "There are so many other species that may not be reported but that's because they don't tolerate human activity as much. They may not nest near humans."
If someone sees a dead or dying bird exhibiting these symptoms, wildlife authorities should be alerted. Residents also need to take precautions when handling the bird, including wearing gloves and having the carcass double-bagged.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife has sent carcasses of birds with the suspected illness to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Sick birds can also be taken to a wildlife rehabilitator. Click here to find a center near you.
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