sick bird being held in two hands

2021 Mystery Bird Illness – 11 Things You Should Know

Experts are baffled by a mysterious bird illness that began in late spring and has now spread to ten different states and Washington, DC. On July 14, Massachusetts and Rhode Island added bird feeder and bird bath removal warnings as a precaution although no symptomatic birds were reported in either state.

The first confirmed cases emerged in Washington DC and surrounding areas in May, although some researchers believe the unknown disease may have started as early as late March or April. Primarily young songbirds are being infected and show symptoms such as crusty, swollen eyes and blindness. Neurological impacts are also being observed and include loss of balance, inability to stand, unusual neck movements, and vocalization abnormalities. Rehabilitators have tried to save sick birds, but the unknown illness has been challenging and many birds have died while under their skilled care. 

Here are 11 things you should know about this mysterious wild bird illness and what you can do while researchers are searching for the cause and a cure.

What kind of birds are getting sick?

The illness is being observed primarily in four species of birds including young Blue Jays, American Robins, European Starlings, and Common Grackles.

Other bird species reported to be impacted include the Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, House Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee and the Carolina Wren.

Adult birds are also falling ill although the vast majority of reported illnesses are in the young.

What areas are the birds from?

The first reports of an unusual bird illness began in May in Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Cases then appeared in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are on the no-feed list as of July 14, but no sick birds have been reported in either state.

This state specific alert guide will link you to the latest government or wildlife agency updates in impacted regions.

What symptoms are the birds showing?

Birds are being observed with eye symptoms including crusty discharge, swelling and blindness. Birds can appear disoriented or lethargic. Neurological symptoms include lack of balance, difficulty standing, and neck issues. Some birds have been observed “star gazing” or extending their necks upwards and staring skyward in a transfixed manner. Other birds have been noted as vocalizing excessively.

What is causing the illness?

Experts know more of what is not causing the illness than what is. Several agencies and university laboratories are working in conjunction to rule out common pathogens and causes. An exact finding is still elusive.

According to the latest statement from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources: “The following pathogens have not been detected in any birds tested, based on results received to date: Salmonella and Chlamydia (bacterial pathogens); avian influenza virus, West Nile virus and other flaviviruses, Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses, herpesviruses and poxviruses; and Trichomonas parasites. Transmission electron microscopy and additional diagnostic tests, including microbiology, virology, parasitology, and toxicology are ongoing.”

Early on, a connection to the 17-year Brood X cicada emergence was explored. Some researches believed pesticides used to curb infestations or a fungus plaguing the cicadas may have been causing the birds who had eaten the bugs to become sick. Scientists studying the illness are now skeptical of this theory.

Should I stop feeding my birds?

Relying on what the vast majority of experts are recommending, the most cautious answer is yes, for the time being.

Because birds congregate close together at feeders and that can lead to pathways for disease to spread, wildlife officials in impacted areas are urging residents to remove their bird feeders and stop feeding birds until they can get a better handle on what is causing this illness. In some states, that warning is reserved for counties or specific areas where sick birds have been found. In other areas, it applies to the entire state, regardless of whether sick or dead birds are present.

Most recently, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have issued a full state-wide ban on bird feeding even though no reports of illness have been received.

There is no indication this disease is being spread to domesticated birds like chickens and ducks, though experts advise owners to be particularly vigilant about following proper bio-security practices.

This state specific alert guide will provide guidance on what you should do with bird feeders and bird baths in your backyard.

Should I take down my bird baths?

Most wildlife experts are advising that residents in impacted areas remove all bird feeders and bird baths until more information is learned about this illness.

Remember to invert or store your bird baths properly so rainwater cannot accumulate and potentially spread disease.

How do I clean my feeders and bird baths?

Regardless of whether you live in an area impacted by this illness, proper feeder and bird bath hygiene is critical year-round. You should be cleaning your feeders and bird bath at least every two weeks with a 10% beach solution. That means one part bleach mixed with nine parts water. Clean all parts of the feeder thoroughly. Toothbrushes, baby bottle brushes, or kitchen cleaning brushes are ideal for this task. No seed residue should remain in your feeders so get into those nooks and crannies.

Always wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after touching your feeders or bird baths.

Vinegar and cleaners that do not offer disinfectant protection will not kill the accumulated germs and bacteria on your feeders.

After cleaning, allow your feeders and bird baths to air dry. Store them away until you can put them out and fill them up again.

Should I clean up the areas around my bird feeders?

Now is a good time to extend your bird eco-system housekeeping to the areas around your feeders. Rake or sweep up any bird seed hulls or leftover bird food and discard it in the trash. Clean accumulated food, dirt, and leaves under your decks, especially if you use your decks to feed birds. You may be surprised to discover just how much bird seed waste can accumulate under stairs and decks!

Take the time to rinse off any item around your yard with accumulated bird waste including fence posts, deck railings, trellises, patio furniture and clothing line poles. You can use a product like Poop Off to help you with this chore.

If you anticipate heavy fall and winter feeding, consider adding a covering of mulch in the area under your feeders. You can also add seed catchers on feeders to minimize ground spillage and seed waste.

How do I store my unused bird food?

It’s important to make sure you store your unused bird food for the duration of this feeding shutdown. Summer heat and moisture are enemies of bird seed and can lead to mold and spoilage.

Pack up your bird seed in an airtight container. Securely seal the tops of all bags. Store in a cool, dry location preferably inside a garage or dry basement.

When you open and serve your bird seed again, check it for any signs of mold, bad smells, or bug infestations. Discard any kind of food that just doesn’t look or smell right.

What should I do if I find a sick or dead bird?

If you find a sick or injured bird, contact your local wild bird rehabilitator for assistance. This state specific wildlife rehabilitator list will help guide you in the regions identified as having cases of this wild bird mystery illness. Take photos or video of the bird. This could be very helpful to your rehabilitator or state agency investigating the disease.

Remember that most wild bird species are protected under the terms of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which prohibits unlicensed individuals from a variety of wild bird-related activities, including caring for sick or injured birds. Don’t try to care for a sick or injured bird that you may find.

If you find a dead bird you believe to be infected by this illness, take photos and submit your sighting to your local state wildlife agency. Many states have already established online tracking or special emails to track cases.This reporting is extremely important in helping identify suspected cases and tracking the spread of the disease. You can find your state’s reporting link or email in this state specific alert guide.

You can dispose of any dead bird by double-bagging it and placing it in with your trash. Alternately, you can bury it deeply in the ground.

Never touch a sick or dead bird with your bare hands. Practice safe hygiene, wear gloves, and thoroughly clean your hands after touching a sick or dead bird. Keep all domestic pets away from sick or dead birds.

I miss feeding my birds. What should I do?

Our feathered friends bring us so much joy, it’s hard to send them on a sudden vacation away from our decks, patios and yards. But there are plenty of things you can do to keep busy while scientists and medical experts work to solve this mystery.

First, make a commitment to take care of your backyard birding housekeeping. Don’t count on summer rain to clean and disinfect your feeders and watering areas. Get to work giving all of your birding areas a thorough cleaning. Turn your thoughts to fall feeding and plan ahead. Consider replacing old, worn out feeders with new recyclable or easy-to-clean models. There are some great American-made choices on the market now like these and these.

Visit your local garden center and purchase bird-friendly flowers, shrubs or trees that will provide natural food sources for years to come. You can plant these wonderful natural bird feeders right in the ground or in containers on your deck or patio.

Next, work to become a citizen scientist by learning the signs of this mystery illness and keeping your eyes open for sick or dead birds. Remember that birds get sick, injured and die for a variety of reasons including predation, window strikes, car collisions, accidents, etc. Don’t panic if you find a sick, injured or dead bird. Use our state specific wildlife rehabilitator list and call an expert for trusted guidance. Reporting sightings of birds you think may be sick is important to researchers and government agencies involved in this issue.

Have a good social media following? Help spread the word to your fellow backyard birders, your town’s animal control officer or local media. Share this What You Should Know About Wild Bird Illness ’21.

The good news is that it’s summer and our feathered friends have abundant natural food sources around them in which to survive and take care of their young. So don’t be anxious that removing your feeders or bird baths will cause your birds to go hungry. Some of us pride ourselves on our “regulars,” the birds we already know by sight and habit. Don’t worry, they’ll remember you and they’ll be back before you know it.


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