Homeowners urged to stop feeding backyard birds in wake of mysterious illness

Monique Calello
Staunton News Leader
Though numerous states are receiving reports of a mysterious illness affecting songbirds, such as blue jays (pictured), Missouri Department of Conservation says there is no indication of the illness affecting birds in Missouri. The public is still encouraged to be on the lookout for groups of sick and dead birds and report them to WildlifeHealth@mdc.mo.gov.

The early morning chorus of chirps and tweets have taken on a morose note as a mysterious illness is harming Virginia songbirds.

Since late May, people have been reporting sick and dying birds afflicted with swollen, crusty eyes and neurological symptoms — such as balancing issues and tremors. What began in a handful of states has now expanded to include Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

According to a statement released by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, cases in Virginia so far have been confined to the state’s northern and northwestern regions. Diseases can spread where birds congregate, such as bird feeders and birdbaths, and wildlife experts are asking residents in this area to remove their feeders and keep birdbaths clean as a precaution.

“Experts are still trying to determine what’s causing the bird deaths,” said Stefanie Taillon, assistant director of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “As with any unusual human-wildlife encounter, it’s important to report sightings to the appropriate officials.”

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The Virginia Department of Wildlife Services says between May 23 and June 30, it received more than 1,400 reports of sick or dying birds in the northern and northwest areas, 450 of which involved birds with eye issues and/or neurological signs. Many species of birds have been affected, but most instances are among fledgling common grackles, blue jays, European starlings and American robins.

Officials say there are no reports of the mysterious illness causing health issues in poultry, livestock or humans.

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The specific illness is still unknown, and “multiple bacterial, viral and parasitic agents have not been detected in the bird samples tested,” said Sergio Harding, bird conservation biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. “We continue to work with diagnostic laboratories to investigate the cause of this event.”

Among the potential causes that have been ruled out are: salmonella, chlamydia, and viruses including avian influenza, West Nile, other flaviviruses, Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses, herpesviruses and poxviruses; and Trichomonas parasites.

Homeowners and property owners are encouraged to take the following steps for mitigation:

  • Stop feeding birds until the deaths have subsided.
  • Clean bird feeders and baths with a 10% bleach solution, rinse with water, and allow to air dry.
  • Avoid handling birds. If handling birds is necessary, wear disposable gloves.
  • If picking up a dead bird, avoid direct contact, and place it in a sealed plastic bag to dispose with household trash.
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a precaution.
  • Report sick or dying birds using the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources bird mortality reporting form.

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Monique Calello (she/her) is The News Leader's health reporter. Story ideas? I want to hear them. Please email me at mcalello@newsleader.com. Follow me on Twitter @moniquecalello.