Backyard birders have been anxiously awaiting word that state wide bans on bird feeders and bird baths will end after a mysterious illness swept through 10 states and Washington DC. Since late spring, hundreds of birds have been sickened or died including hatchlings and fledglings. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the restrictions are going to be reversed any time soon.
A mysterious illness began sickening and killing birds in the Washington DC area in early May. A wide variety of backyard birds including young Blue Jays, American Robins, Common Grackles and European Starlings were being found with crusty eyes, blindness, lethargy and neurological symptoms. Despite treatment, many of the birds died or were humanely euthanized. The illness soon spread to several other states and by June, wildlife experts in impacted regions were recommending that bird feeders and bird baths be removed. Massachusetts and Rhode Island preemptively called for removals even though no disease was yet reported in those or nearby regions.
The Initial Outbreak is on the Decline
In July, specialized testing by several wildlife agencies and university labs was underway. While common illnesses have been ruled out, no clear cause of the outbreak has yet been discovered. Fortunately, new cases of the mystery illness seem to be on the downward trend. Experts from New Jersey, Washington DC and Kentucky all report steady declines in reports of songbirds with the spring illness. There have been no reports of impacted birds in New England states as well.
A New Illness is Impacting Crows & Raptors
But new concerns have arisen in the original Washington DC epicenter where a similar, unexplained disease is being seen in crows and raptors.
Jim Monsma, Director of City Wildlife, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in Washington DC, shared news of this recent observation with The Bird Mom.
“Current concern is for crows (both Fish and American) and juvenile hawks, primarily Red-shouldered and Cooper’s. They are showing neurological symptoms and dying despite our treatment. Some them have tested positive for West Nile, and we see that every year. But we are getting more this year and some of the victims do not test positive for West Nile.”
Experts Still Recommend Removing Feeders & Bird Baths
As of early August, state wildlife experts were encouraging residents in areas impacted by the mystery illness to continue to refrain from feeding birds and remove bird feeders and bird baths.
In a recent email to The Bird Mom, Dr. Nicole Lewis, a Wildlife Veterinarian and Research Scientist with the New Jersey Office of Fish and Wildlife Health and Forensics noted, “We are still recommending that if you have had sick or dead fledglings or hatchlings on your property to keep your feeders down. I wish I could say differently but out of an abundance of caution it’s best to not feed at this time.”
Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife reported on July 30 that no large scale mortality events had occurred in the state that match the mystery illness profile.
“MassWildlife is asking the public to continue to refrain from feeding birds and putting out bird baths at this time as a precaution to avoid any risk to spreading the mysterious illness,” noted updates at their website.
Rhode Island is also not seeing the illness anywhere in the state but is continuing to urge residents to stop feeding birds for the time being.
House Finch Eye Disease Found in Kentucky
The no-feed rule may be a good idea in other states where a seasonal outbreak of House Finch eye disease is now occurring.
In their July 28 update, The Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife reported that an annual outbreak of House Finch eye disease, unrelated to the mystery illness, was circulating through the state.
They recommended residents who observe sick house finches or goldfinches at their feeders to take them down and clean them with a 10 percent bleach solution (one part bleach and nine parts water).
The Cornell University Chronicle recently wrote an interesting article about how backyard birders turned citizen scientists are contributing to new theories about immunity and House Finch eye disease.
7 Action Steps for Backyard Birders
If you see a sick or dead bird in your yard, proper reporting is key to helping researchers determine disease types and spread. You can take these seven action steps as a responsible backyard birder:
-If you find a sick bird, do not touch it with your bare hands. First, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator to ask for guidance. Try not to touch a sick/injured bird unless you are asked to do so. Remember, it is illegal to care for most wild birds in your home. Carefully follow your rehabilitator’s directions. Always wear gloves if touching a sick bird.
-If you find a dead bird, contact your state wildlife agency to report your findings. Carefully follow their directions.
-If you dispose of a dead bird, bury it in a very deep hole to prevent scavengers from digging it up and consuming it. Preferably, double bag the bird’s carcass and dispose of it in your trash.
-Always keep your pets away from sick or dead birds and the areas in which they were present.
-Practice safe personal hygiene. Wear gloves if you handle a wild bird. Wash hands thoroughly afterwards.
-Follow your state wildlife agency alerts and take down bird feeders and bird baths when recommended.
-Practice good backyard birding housekeeping by regularly cleaning your bird feeders and bird baths.
To review the most recent recommendations in impacted “mystery illness” regions including reporting portals review our state specific alert guide
Find help for sick birds with our state specific wildlife rehabilitator list
Help spread the word about the mystery bird illness with our fact sheet What You Should Know About Wild Bird Illness ’21
Watch our YouTube video on the Mystery Bird Illness