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In This Place

Are Mysterious Bird Deaths Coming Our Way?

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the real Kam75 / CC BY-SA 2.0
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Blue Jay

The big bird news item of the last few weeks has been the mysterious illness affecting birds in states to our south and west, an issue that is generating a lot of questions from concerned local bird lovers. The disease first appeared in the Washington D.C. area back in May, but has since apparently spread to an area spanning from Florida to Indiana to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Birds began turning up at wildlife rehab centers with swollen, crusty eyes and neurological symptoms like dizziness. It mostly affected young Blue Jays, robins, grackles, and starlings, but has also been reported in bluebirds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Carolina Wrens. Since all of these will visit feeders, affected states were asking people to take their bird feeders and bird baths down as a way to force social distancing on the birds and hopefully reduce spread, though no one knows what the disease agent even is at this point.

At these times we lean heavily on a small network of wildlife disease experts around the country. These unheralded government and university scientists, a mix of virologists, toxicologists, parasitologists, and other variously specialized microbiologists spend their days staring into microscopes and poring over carcasses while the rest of us are outside enjoying life. You may not know that we actually have a National Wildlife Health Center, part of the US Geological Survey, with campuses in Madison, Wisconsin and also Honolulu. I wonder if anyone in the Honolulu office ever requests a transfer? Probably not. So far these experts have ruled out the usual suspects, including West Nile Virus, salmonella, avian flu, avian pox, and several others. If you’re looking for a quick answer, hold your horses—a local example of a mysterious bird illness shows that it could be years before they isolate the culprit.

Here on the Outer Cape, bird-oriented folks are probably familiar with the annual Common Eider die off centered around Great Island in Wellfleet. Often hundreds of dead and dying eiders would be on the beach during peak fall migration going back many years. After some dead ends and false starts, a virologist at a lab in Georgia eventually determined the birds all had a new virus, one they unfortunately named the Wellfleet Bay Virus. But mystery remains – years later, we still don’t know how they get the virus or what ultimately kills the birds, since the virus itself isn’t enough to kill them, oddly enough.

At this point there is no evidence this new mystery bird disease has reached Massachusetts, and apparently case rates are already declining. We should all be vigilant for signs this new disease is here, so please report any birds with those symptoms to a wildlife rehabber or the state wildlife agency. And this would be a good time to do what we should all be doing anyway, which is periodically taking down our feeders and bird baths and cleaning them with a 10% bleach solution. This includes those hummingbird and oriole feeders, too. Maybe take a week off from feeding – birds have plenty to eat in summer – to see if this reaches Massachusetts. If you’re worried about bankrupting your local purveyor of fine bird seeds, maybe buy a few books or some t-shirts instead of seed—it’s never too early to start that holiday shopping...