ALBANY — A mysterious new illness afflicting songbirds throughout the East Coast has local residents concerned it’s hitting winged guests visiting their backyards.
Delmar resident James Botta shared on social media how he found sparrows on the ground and in apparent distress. He said the birds appeared to have twisted necks and were “screaming in obvious pain.” He and his daughter’s neighbor made the recent discovery, noting that the birds were unable to fly or stand. They were ultimately euthanized.
His post on Nextdoor was followed by more than three dozen residents claiming similar occurrences with area songbirds, some tying their experience to reports of a mysterious illness recently reported in National Geographic last Thursday.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation, however, said on Monday, July 19 that there are no confirmed links between the local bird deaths and what’s happening in other states.
A front-row seat
Virginia Tech estimates that more than 50 million Americans install bird feeders in their backyards. Their desire to help wildlife, or to simply connect with nature, fuels a $4 billion bird food market each year.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped stimulate an interest in the old-time hobby. The National Audubon Society reported increases as high as 80 percent in local sales, from bird baths to feeders and bird seed.
Bird feeders, however, can lead to the spread of diseases. Ornithologists often attribute unkempt feeders as vectors in localized outbreaks of conjunctivitis, which is why they suggest people clean their feeders often. But, when regional outbreaks occur, state agencies will ask that feeders and bird baths be removed for an extended time period. Such action was taken this spring when a salmonellosis outbreak spread across the Southeast in the Carolinas, Georgia, West Virginia and Alabama.
Scientists have yet to identify the cause of this latest disease. People have observed symptoms causing crusty eyes, tremors and paralysis among songbirds throughout the Atlantic states, including Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and the District of Columbia.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine released a joint statement last week amid increased concerns.
“Many people are concerned about the emergence of a new illness… and we share your concern,” they stated.
The lab has not assigned any experts to study the illness as of Wednesday, July 14, but it collaborated with the college to share information and steps to help quell the disease’s spread.
The illness has reportedly affected juvenile Blue Jays, Common Grackles, European Starlings and American Robins, along with a few other species. Scientists don’t yet know whether the birds are growing sick from a virus or bacteria, or its the result of a toxic substance. They do know, however, that it is not caused by any of the major known bird diseases such as West Nile, salmonella, avian influenza or House Finch eye disease.
The DEC has received social media reports about bird deaths in New York, as well as the reports of bird deaths documented in other eastern states.
DEC wildlife personnel have received calls from the public reporting a dead bird, usually in their yard. The state said there are typically many dead fledgling birds on the landscape during this time of year; normal nestling or fledgling mortality rates are high with only 25 to 50 percent of songbirds surviving their first year.
Because of the documented issues involving mass bird deaths with neurologic signs or eye lesions in other states, the DEC said wildlife staff are on alert to look out for dead birds.
The help of the public is appreciated to determine the nature of these unusual mortality events, which may affect the eyes and neurological system of birds. If saving a bird carcass for DEC, gloves should be used to pick up the bird. The bird should be placed in a plastic baggie, kept on ice and in the shade. Anyone handling birds, even with gloved hands, should thoroughly wash their hands afterward. Only freshly deceased birds should be saved, due to how quickly carcasses degrade in the heat. Those collecting birds should also provide DEC with their name, address and phone number. Contact the wildlife staff at the nearest DEC regional office by visiting dec.ny.gov/about/558.html.
With no cases in New York, the DEC has not asked for feeders to be removed from gardens and backyards. Audubon New York, however, did recommend that residents take them down, an order the Cornell Lab acknowledged in its statement.
“Cornell Lab does not currently recommend taking them down, given the lack of confirmed cases and uncertainty about how the disease is transmitted,” the Lab stated, adding that it’s “always a good idea” to clean feeders. “However, it is fine to take down feeders as an extra precaution if you prefer, since there is plenty of natural food for birds at this time of year.”
As of Sunday, July 18, the Cornell Lab said humans and domestic livestock have gone unaffected in regions hit by the illness. The lab also said that it sees reported cases of the illness waning.