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Mystery Strikes Region’s Birds

Mortality events under investigation 

By Kathy Knotts 

It should be a feeding frenzy for birds right now. For bird lovers, the emergence of the Brood X cicadas was a chance to watch insectivores feasting in their yards. And thanks to the pandemic, birding become a popular hobby for all of us working from home. 

Yet, many nature watchers are noticing that fewer birds are showing up to their backyard feeders or dining on insects. Or they were finding sick, blind and dead birds in their yards. 

Last month, reports of blind and confused birds have begun popping up around Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia rand that has local birders concerned. 

In late May, wildlife managers and animal rescue groups began receiving calls about birds with eye swelling, crusty discharge and strange neurological issues. Birds that seemed to stumble or fall over. Birds that couldn’t figure out how to fly. Fledglings that just seemed “off”.  

The species most commonly affected have been common grackles, European starlings and blue jays. But they aren’t the only ones affected. 

Barbara Hopkins of Silver Spring says she found what she believes was a Magnolia warbler in her yard. Her neighbors were also noticing dead birds. “I would like somebody to get to the bottom of this, as I find it very scary as a nature lover,” she said. 

Carrol Cowan, also of Silver Spring, has seen several dying or dead birds recently. “All but one of the birds I’ve noticed have appeared to be juvenile European starlings. One was a catbird,” says Cowan. “Over the past week, I’ve typically seen at least one a day, usually dead, and I usually leave them where they lay because I don’t want to carry them around. If on my condo’s property, I pick up with a poop bag and put in a trash can.” 

According to Virginia’s state veterinarian Megan Kirchgessner, the majority of the reports her agency, the Department of Wildlife Resources, have fielded have been in the Arlington, Va., region and predominantly involve fledgling blue jays and grackles, but other species such as American robins, starlings and cowbirds have been reported. Kirchgessner estimates there have been about 300 reports received in Virginia. 

Maryland Department of Natural Resources spokesman Gregg Bortz reported a similar situation. “The birds identified in Maryland have been blue jays and grackles, and a few other species of land-based birds. They have been found primarily in central/northern counties. Working with our partner state and federal agencies, we are continuing to monitor this mortality event.” 

“Eye issues were reported in what otherwise looked like healthy juvenile birds, causing blindness and the birds to land and stay on the ground,” said the Animal Welfare League of Arlington in a statement. “Animal Control is now seeing additional species of birds affected. Other agencies and localities across the region and state are reporting similar issues.” 

The crusted-over eyes look similar to mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, a disease that mostly affects house finches and can be spread when birds eat from birdfeeders that aren’t cleaned regularly. But the neurological symptoms of birds unable to walk or fly are what clue biologists in that this is something else. 

“The most consistently reported clinical signs are related to eye issues. Blindness can be difficult to accurately assess in a fledgling bird but eye pathology has been confirmed by visual inspection of sick birds and also by the diagnostic laboratories that have received tissues from sick birds,” says Kirchgessner. 

The numbers were high enough to draw the attention of the U.S. Geological Survey, who issued a joint statement last week, saying “No definitive cause of death is identified at this time. The District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, and National Park Service are continuing to work with diagnostic laboratories to investigate the cause of mortality. Those laboratories include the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, the University of Georgia Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, and the University of Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program.” 

Birders have speculated the cause to be anything from bacterial, to viral to toxin exposure from pesticides being sprayed on cicadas—which isn’t effective anyway. Yet, similar mortality events are happening in places outside the cicada emergence area, such as Cincinatti, Ohio and New York City. 

Other areas have been luckier. Liana Vitali of Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Lothian, which hosts avian researchers, has had zero reports of local bird deaths.  

“We have seen no afflicted or injured birds, nor have I heard any other biologists mention it. I’ll be following the story along with the rest of the public,” reports Maren Gimple, a field ecologist at Foreman’s Branch Bird Observatory at Washington College in Chestertown. 

While wildlife officials seek out answers through testing, the public has been advised to take down their feeders and keep an eye out for sick animals in the region.  

Birds congregating at feeders and baths can transmit diseases like conjunctivitis or salmonella to one another. Therefore, the state and District agencies recommend that the public in the outbreak area: 

  • Cease feeding birds until this wildlife mortality event has concluded;  
  • Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution;  
  • Avoid handling birds, but wear disposable gloves and a mask if handling is necessary; and 
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution. If you must remove dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag to dispose with household trash. 

Bird lovers in Chesapeake Country are heeding the precautions. 

Emil Petruncio, an Anne Arundel County birder, posted that and his wife “saw what we believe to be a case of this yesterday, for the first time, here in Arnold (Anne Arundel County). A young male cardinal was making short, erratic flights, and seemed to have impaired vision. We took our feeders down immediately. We’re very concerned, as we have a nice mix of species that visit our feeders.”  

Petruncio now says he thinks the cardinal may have been a victim of mycoplasmal conjunctivitis.”In any event, we are keeping our feeders in storage until we see announcements from wildlife conservation groups that the disease is on the decline.” 

State and local agencies ask for anyone coming across a sick or dead bird, to report it to the appropriate agency or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. 

“We know these birds are out there: dying, compromised, with terrible blindness and neurological symptoms. Please bring us any you find until we can figure out whether it is bacterial, viral or exposure to toxins,” posted the Phoenix Wildlife Center, a permitted rehabilitator north of Towson. “We are able to take any compromised bird here at PWC. If you see a dead or dying bird, please consider reporting it by calling 877 463 6497. We will need the EXACT location and a call back number with the email. Please dispose of any birds with gloves.” 

DNR’s Bortz has similar advice. “For Maryland residents, if you encounter sick or dead birds, please contact the DNR/ USDA Wildlife hotline (877-463-6497). If you must remove dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag to dispose of with household trash. Additional information will be shared as diagnostic results are received,” he says. 

Report sick birds to: 

Maryland DNR Wildlife Hotline: 877-463-6497 

Patricia Terrant/Blue Angel Rescue Wildlife Rehabilitation:
Lusby, MD, 410-610-6903 

Carole VanWie:
Lusby, MD, 410-991-0783 

Second Chance Wildlife Center: 

Gaithersburg, MD, 301-926-WILD (9453), [email protected] 

Phoenix Wildlife Center (Kathleen Woods):

Baltimore County, 410-628-9736, http://phoenixwildlife.org/ 

Judy Holzman/All Creatures Great and Small:
Columbia, MD, 410-740-5096