‘Mysterious disease’ killing birds: Massachusetts urges people to report dead birds and stop using bird feeders

Wildlife officials are urging residents to report any sick or dead birds, and to stop using bird feeders and birdbaths as a “mysterious disease” kills birds in some sections of the East.

So far in New England, there have been zero confirmed cases of the puzzling ailment — songbirds with crusty or swollen eyes, stumbling and twitching — but Bay State officials are “monitoring” and taking in reports of sick or dead birds to help track this widespread mortality event.

“We’re asking the public to provide reports of birds they’ve found, when it’s not obvious road collisions and birds crashing into buildings,” said Marion Larson of MassWildlife.

“It’s kind of a mystery right now,” she said, adding that Mid-Atlantic states and Midwest states have tested for avian influenza and West Nile Virus but those “usual” diseases turned up negative. “They’re kind of stumped right now.”

This illness started popping up in May, and still “no one really knows what’s going on,” Larson added.

Wildlife managers in Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky began receiving reports of sick and dying birds with eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological symptoms.

More recently, reports of the bird illness have been received as far north as New Jersey. There were also reports out of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio and Indiana.

The majority of affected birds are fledgling common grackles, blue jays, European starlings, and American robins. Other species of songbirds have been reported as well.

“It’s really a mysterious disease,” said Mass Audubon ornithologist Joan Walsh. “And the last thing we need in this world right now is another mysterious disease.”

Officials don’t yet know if the illness is caused by a disease organism — a virus, bacteria or parasite — or if it’s the result of a toxic substance in the landscape.

They’re also trying to figure out how it’s transmitted. It might be directly transmissible from bird to bird, or might require a vector — such as with malaria, where a mosquito transmits the illness.

As a result, MassWildlife and Mass Audubon are telling people to stop using bird feeders and bird baths. Birds congregating at bird feeders and bird baths can transmit diseases to one another.

“There’s an abundance of food available for birds naturally,” Larson said. “They’ve been evolving for thousands of years, so they’re set up for surviving without human intervention and without humans feeding them.”

No human health or domestic livestock issues have been reported.

Avoid handling birds unless necessary, MassWildlife says. If a person is picking up a dead bird, they should place an inverted plastic bag over their hand to avoid direct contact with the bird. To dispose of dead birds, place them in a plastic bag, seal and discard with household trash or bury them deeply.

MassWildlife is asking people to email reports of sick or dead birds to mass.wildlife@mass.gov and include their location, number and species of birds, symptoms observed, and any photos.

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