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Bird mortality issue limited to “all young birds,” according to three wildlife rehabilitation facilities

“These are babies, they’re blind and they’re crying for their parents.”

Whatever it is that’s sickening and killing birds in several states and the nation’s capital seems to be limited to nestlings/fledglings – birds born this year, according to three wildlife rehabilitation facilities in different geographic areas.

No cause has been identified yet.

According to Jim Monsma, executive director of City Wildlife in Washington D.C., they’ve “taken in about 175 birds with ophthalmic and neurological symptoms, the first being on April 11.  They have all been young birds who hatched this year, primarily Blue Jays, Common Grackles, and European Starlings.  We have, however, also seen House Sparrows, American Robins, Northern Mockingbirds, Carolina Wrens, Norther Flickers, and a few other species with the same symptoms.”

Lisa Smith, executive director of Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, De., e-mailed, “Tri-State has received 18 cases as of today (6/17). 4 from MD, 2 from PA, and 12 from DE. The earliest case was received on 5/29. 13 Blue Jays, 3 Common Grackles, 1 European Starling, and 1 American Robin have been received. All were young birds, either nestlings or fledglings. Because the cause of the disease is unknown, we are euthanizing all birds on admission with symptoms of this disease. We don’t know how contagious it is, and with 170+ birds in house currently, we can’t put our entire caseload at risk.”

The dead birds are being examined at several labs.

Smith emailed, “We submitted 4 cases (dead birds) to the PADLS lab at New Bolton Center for testing. We are eagerly awaiting the results. We greatly appreciate all the cooperative work that the laboratories and agencies are doing to try to figure out what is causing this illness.”

According to a June 9 statement from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), other labs currently looking for answers to this mysterious avian illness include “the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, the University of Georgia Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study and the University of Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program.”

According to that USGS statement, “in late May, wildlife managers in Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia began receiving reports of sick and dying birds with eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs. No definitive cause of death is identified at this time.”

Unfortunately, it seems this has now gone beyond those initial locations.

The Ohio Wildlife Center posted on Facebook Friday, “We have been admitting songbirds with eye issues and are working closely with the Ohio Division of Wildlife and USGS National Wildlife Health Center to help determine what might be causing our local birds to become sick.”

In a different Facebook post Friday, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife stated, “We are receiving reports of sick and dying birds with eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs. Other states have reported similar cases.”

Ginger Rood has a wildlife rescue organization called Wildbirds in Northern Kentucky.

I got fledglings and juveniles – I didn’t get any adults,” said Rood. “We’re averaging one a day, if not more – we’ve had at least 30.”

Those birds, according to Rood, were starlings, blue jays, grackles and one house sparrow.

Rood said the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife picked up some of the birds from her recently. She had previously sent 16 birds to the University of Kentucky lab – she said those reports were inconclusive.

Though Rood is unsure of the cause and hopes it’s quickly found, she noted a similarity to the 2000 outbreak of West Nile Virus. She explained with that outbreak, the corvid family of birds was the most susceptible. Blue jays are corvids.

Crows are also corvids. According to Orie Lawn, who commented on a WNAV Facebook post, he found a baby crow Wednesday night in Linthicum with symptoms of the illness – he took the bird to a rehabilitator.

Conjecture has led some to believe the bird mortality issue is related to the emergence of the Brood X cicadas, however there has been no confirmation of this by anyone.

In Maryland, there have been few, if any, cicadas on the Eastern Shore. There have also been few, if any, reports of birds on the Eastern Shore suffering from this issue.

According to Smith, “It does not appear that there are as many cases on the Delmarva peninsula as there are in the Baltimore/DC/VA area.”

Kim McLamb, a Queen Anne’s County-based wildlife rehabilitator, said she’s not heard of any birds in her area with this mystery illness.

For rehabilitators who try so hard to save birds, seeing them in this condition has been rough – especially because of the age of the birds.

“These are babies, they’re blind and they’re crying for their parents,” said Rood. “They don’t know what’s going on, they’re begging for food – some have had seizures.”

Rood said it’s been day after day of this including on her birthday, which she described as “horrible.”

“I’m 85-years-old, my husband is 90 and I’m falling apart,” said Rood. “This is sad. When I heard those babies crying for their parents and they couldn’t eat, it broke my heart.”

According to the USGS, “birds congregating at feeders and baths can transmit disease to one another.” Recommendations are:

  • Cease feeding birds until this wildlife mortality event has concluded;
  • Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution;
  • Avoid handling birds, but wear disposable gloves if handling is necessary; and
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.

If you encounter sick or dead birds, contact your state wildlife conservation agency. In Maryland, call toll-free 877-463-6497.  US Department Agriculture (USDA),  Wildlife Services Operators are available from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday, except State holidays.

Donna L. Cole is an award-winning multimedia and investigative reporter for WNAV News in Annapolis, Md.