Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

To Feed or Not to Feed Birds
July 23, 2021
By Steve Grinley

     My last week’s column about the mystery disease affecting songbirds in the mid-Atlantic states seem to cause more concern and questions from customers over the past week. Most concern was around the blanket statements made by MassWildlife, Mass Audubon and other New England state Audubon organizations asking people to take down their bird feeders in “an over abundance of caution.” Social media, local newspaper and television media picked up on these statements and echoed the cautionary recommendations.

     Since writing last week’s column, I also read a joint statement put out by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Though they suggest that you follow your own state guidelines as to whether to take down bird feeders, they offered a more pragmatic approach in their recommendation to not take down feeders in New York and supported it with the scientific facts that they knew at the time.

     I have copied some of their main points here:

     “Although little is known yet about the cause, as of mid-July, it appears that the incidence of the illness may be waning.

     “No human health or domestic livestock/poultry issues have been reported.

     “The illness is not caused by any of the major known bird diseases such as West Nile, salmonella, avian influenza, House Finch eye disease, Trichomonas parasites, etc.

     “The species most frequently affected are fledgling (juvenile) Blue Jays, Common Grackles, European Starlings, and American Robins, along with a few other species. Symptoms include crusty eyes and neurological signs such as tremors or partial paralysis.

    “We don’t yet know if the illness is caused by a disease organism (i.e., virus, bacteria, or parasite), or if it’s the result of a toxic substance in the landscape.

     “If it’s a disease, we don’t know how it’s transmitted. It might be directly transmissible from bird to bird (like a cold or the flu), or might require a vector (such as with malaria, where a mosquito transmits the illness).

     “Cornell Lab does not currently recommend taking [feeders] down, given the lack of confirmed cases and uncertainty about how the disease is transmitted. However, it is fine to take down feeders as an extra precaution if you prefer, since there is plenty of natural food for birds at this time of year.

     “It’s always a good idea to keep feeders clean by washing with a dilute bleach solution.”

     You can read Cornell’s entire statement here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/statement-new-songbird-illness/

     Since Essex County and southeastern Rockingham County are even farther from the front lines of this mystery disease than New York, our thinking and recommendation more closely follows this Cornell position. If you continue to feed birds, and the majority of those questions and concerns we receive have been from folks who want to, we strongly recommend keeping feeders clean, seed and bath water fresh, and monitoring the birds in your yard and area. We will continue to keep our eyes and ears on this situation and will continue to share with you what we learn.

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

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