Blue Jays, Grackles, Other Birds Dying From Mysterious Ailment Experts urge residents to stop using bird feeders, to prevent disease spread.
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Blue Jays, Grackles, Other Birds Dying From Mysterious Ailment

A dead blue jay, afflicted by the mysterious illness striking D.C.-area birds. Brian Evans/Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center hide caption

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Brian Evans/Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

For Jim Monsma, it's not unusual to see a dying bird or two during a typical day at work. Monsma runs the wildlife rescue organization, City Wildlife, which rehabilitates all kinds of creatures, from turtles to eagles.

But in recent weeks, he and his staff have seen something new. They started becoming alarmed in late May, when dozens of birds had been brought in with the same symptoms: seizures, loss of balance, swelling, crusty eyes, and blindness.

"This is truly scary," says Monsma. "We don't don't see the light at the end of the tunnel, as it were, yet. And it's just every day more and more birds."

Monsma says staff went back through records to find the earliest possible case, and found a bird exhibiting symptoms that came in on April 11. "But at that point it was just one bird and we didn't think of avian epidemics."

Experts say that to prevent the spread, if it is a transmissible disease, residents should stop using bird feeders and bird baths, should avoid handling dead or sick birds and should keep pets from eating them.

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Monsma says the count is up to 174 dead and ailing birds at City Wildlife. At first, he says, staff would try to treat the birds, but nothing worked. "They just went downhill and died no matter what we did. Which isn't that surprising in that we don't know what is causing this."

"At this point we're so inundated, we are just euthanizing because it's a miserable condition for these birds. Our role at this point is simply to spare them additional suffering and an inevitable death."

The mysterious condition is affecting many different species. Initially it was mostly seen in grackles, blue jays and starlings, but has since been seen in house sparrows, northern cardinals, northern flickers, tufted titmice, northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, Carolina wrens, and American robins.

Brian Evans, an ornithologist with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center who studies the urban bird population in the D.C. area, says the fatal condition has been documented throughout the mid-Atlantic and as far west as Ohio. However, he says, it appears to be centered in the D.C. region.

"There's a lot of different ideas that are circulating regarding what might be causing this event," says Evans. "For example, it's been hypothesized that it could have something to do with the Brood X cicadas."

The timeline and geographic distribution appear to match up with the cicadas' emergence.

While it's just a hypothesis at this point, Evans says it could be that birds are becoming ill after eating periodical cicadas tainted by pesticides or insecticides, or possibly being sickened by a fungus that attacks cicadas.

Evans says he's hoping for a cicada-related explanation.

"A population can take a once-every-17-year hit without any major long-term impact to the population. But if this is something else in the environment — which is just as likely — then there's real concern about the long-term health of bird populations."

Several laboratories, including the National Wildlife Health Center, are currently testing dead birds to try to determine the cause.

Evans urges residents to immediately remove and clean bird feeders and bird baths.

"Bird feeders and bird baths are a major source of disease transmission, in part because birds aren't really great at social distancing around these resources," says Evans.

"It's sort of like us with the pandemic — we need to be able to ensure social distancing among the bird community."

Monsma, with City Wildlife, says he always recommends against bird feeders, because of the possibility of disease transmission.

"If you want to feed birds, the best way to do it is plant the right plants, not hang a feeder."

Experts say residents should report ailing or dead birds to local wildlife rehabilitation organizations. In D.C., residents should contact City Wildlife. In Virginia, bird deaths can be reported online, or residents can contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Maryland residents can also contact wildlife rehabilitators in their local area.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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