Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Mysterious Illness Affecting Songbirds
July 16, 2021
By Steve Grinley

     We are receiving numerous inquiries about the mysterious illness that is occurring in birds through the Mid-Atlantic, Southeastern, and some Mid-western states during recent weeks. The cause of this illness is currently unknown. Symptoms include swollen, crusty eyes and indications of a neurological condition such as shaking, disorientation or paralysis. Similar symptoms of conjunctivitis had been seen mainly in finches in the Northwest over a year ago, but this unknown illness affects mainly immature larger birds including grackles, blue jays, starlings, robins, cardinals, sparrows, bluebirds, and other songbirds. Researchers continue to study cases and are trying to determine a cause.

     We have been monitoring this situation closely. Although the cause and spread of this current disease is unknown, similar infectious diseases are spread when bird come in contact with other birds at feeders and birdbaths. Though there are no confirmed reports, as of this writing, of such conditions in birds north of New Jersey, several state wildlife agencies and Audubon Societies in New England have put out statements suggesting that folks take down their bird feeders and birdbaths as an abundance of caution.

     If you are concerned, you should consider taking down your bird feeders and birdbaths for a number of weeks until more is known about this illness. You can put them back up either when it’s clear that the problem won’t show up here or when it’s over. Hummingbird feeders, however, are not part of this concern.

     At the very least, feeders and bird baths should be cleaned with every seed filling and water change, or every week or so. A 10% bleach solution is recommended to disinfect feeders on a regular basis. Feeders should be disassembled for thorough cleaning, rinsed well, and dried completely before fresh seed is added.

     At home, we also use disinfectant wipes to wipe feeder ports and perches in between cleanings. We also have some duplicate feeders that can be thoroughly cleaned while another is being used. Not everyone has that luxury, so cleaning between fillings should be practiced regularly.

     Areas under and around the feeders should be kept clean as well. Hulls should be raked up and disposed of. Adding trays to catch hulls or going to shell-less seed might keep areas cleaner. Even wiping down poles, baffles and other areas where birds regularly perch while “waiting in line” for feeders should also be considered. Seed should be stored in small quantity in a cool, dry place to keep it fresh before use.

     And birds won’t starve if you stop feeding for a while. There is plenty of natural food available this time of year for them to do just fine. We feed the birds for our entertainment (and maybe our indoor cat’s entertainment) and enjoyment. Supplementing their natural food with our offerings does help during the nesting season, but we have to consider when the risk outweighs the benefit.

     If you find a dead bird that is not obviously victim of a window strike or vehicle collision, especially if it has crusty eyes, take photos and keep track of the date and location. Then double bag it and discard it in the normal trash stream, taking care not to touch it and not to allow pets to get near it. Email the information to mass.wildlife@mass.gov to help them track any possible progression of this disease. Do keep in mind that there are more dead birds found this time of year due to the high rate of young bird mortality, so other predatory causes are also possible.

     We will continue to monitor this situation and will provide updates in future columns.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Port Plaza West Shops
45 Storey Ave, Suite 7B
Newburyport, MA 01950

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