Over 200 birds of prey in Maryland affected during same period as 2021 bird mortality event

At least 213 birds of prey in Maryland, specifically red-tailed, red-shouldered and Cooper’s hawks, were affected during the same period of the bird mortality event that hit Maryland, several other states and Washington, D.C. in the spring and summer of 2021.

That hawks were sick and dying during the 2021 bird mortality event was not reported to the public by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) or the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), other than on the USGS Wildlife Health Information Sharing Partnership Event Reporting System (WHISPers)- this despite repeated questions to both agencies specifically about sick and dying hawks during this period.

On July 22, 2021, I sent an email to the the public information officers for USGS and DNR, which read:

“Is USGS aware of the amount of hawks (Cooper’s and Red-tailed) being admitted to rehabilitation facilities with neurological issues? And is it thought to be related to songbird mass mortality event? If so, will additional information be released to the public about it?”

On July 26, 2021 and with no response from either agency, I sent another email to both which read:

“It’s raining sick, juvenile Cooper’s hawks here, along with some, but far fewer juvenile red-tailed hawks. Overnight, three Cooper’s – all from the same Annapolis nest and all presenting with neurological symptoms were found … Is anyone from the USGS or DNR planning to release a statement that another mortality issue with neurological symptoms is being seen in hawks and that it may or may not be related to the similar issue with songbirds? I think the public has a right to know what’s going on – if for no other reason than to ensure the safety of their pets, but also because these sick birds should be taken to rehabbers.”

The USGS responded and deferred to DNR – DNR never provided any information about hawks being affected – not to me and not to the public.

The reports of the sick/dead birds in Maryland were submitted to the USGS by the DNR Fish and Wildlife Health Program – Maryland licensed wildlife rehabilitators reported those birds to DNR.

That birds of prey were being found sickened and dying from an unknown neurological issue during the same period of time as the avian mortality event, was information shared on this blog.

In addition to being a journalist, I’m a volunteer bird of prey rescuer and we were responding to these birds of prey with neurological issues and transporting them to licensed wildlife rehabilitators.

In Washington, D.C., the early epicenter of the bird mortality event, sick and dying hawks were also been seen.

In late July, when asked about hawks being admitted to City Wildlife, a wildlife rehabilitation in Washington, Director Jim Monsma emailed, “We haven’t seen the hawks lately — none at all since the 21st — but we had been getting a higher than usual number of them in the first half of July.  We tested some of them for West Nile, but those tests came back negative.”

According to the USGS website, which provides data about the mortality event on WHISPers, the diagnosis for these hawks is listed as “pending.”

The USGS has not communicated the cause for the sickness/deaths of any of the affected (mostly young) birds through a press release, although records in the agency’s publicly accessible reporting system note conjunctivitis and/or bacterial infection (not otherwise specified) as the diagnosis or suspect for many of the songbird species affected during the period of the mortality event and in several of the states impacted.

According to the original USGS press release about the avian mortality event, dated June 9, 2021, then updated in July, “the majority of affected birds are reported to be fledgling common grackles, blue jays, European starlings and American robins, other species of songbirds have been reported as well. No definitive cause(s) of illness or death have been determined at this time.”

There were other birds too.

In that late July email from Monsma, he wrote, “The biggest problem at the moment is thin and neurological crows (both American and Fish), usually two to three a day, about forty of them since late May with the majority of them in July. Some have oral trichomoniasis, but we are also awaiting test results for West Nile.  Few survive despite our treatments, but we mostly get the birds when the condition is very advanced and the bird is very, very sick.”

Both USGS and DNR were aware hawks were being sickened and dying from a mysterious neurological issue during the same period so many songbirds were – they were aware at least since my emails to both agencies in July.

Sharing information about any information about issues impacting birds is helpful for the public, including for wildlife rehabilitators – also for the birds.

The public could be on the lookout for affected birds – if people are only looking for downed/sick songbirds, not hawks, that could result in hawks not getting the treatment they need and/or prolonged death.

Rehabbers will also share protocols they’ve found helpful to treating birds.

Failure to provide public information does not build public confidence in state or federal agencies.

DNR provided an update in August which stated, “As of mid-August, reports have decreased in many jurisdictions and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is lifting its previous recommendation to cease feeding birds.”

The update also reminded the public to remain vigilant and encouraged feeders and bird baths clean and provided a list of recommendations.

If conjunctivitis and a bacterial infection were the causes or suspect for the mortality event, as the USGS database seems to indicate in so many reports, it’s not clear why the agency failed to report that to the public through a press release.

Conjunctivitis is contagious, spring not far away and baby birds will start to hatch again.

Donna L. Cole is an award-winning investigative and multimedia reporter. She’s also a volunteer bird of prey rescuer.

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