Birds, Bees & Butterflies

Birds, Bees & Butterflies (Melanie Markowski) Melanie was not present, but she submitted a report which was read by Deb Flinchbaugh. This is an “Update on the Mysterious Songbird Disease from the Summer of 2021.” In late May 2021, wildlife managers began receiving reports of sick and dying birds with eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs of stumbling, twitching, and head tremors. Reports began in the Washington, DC area, and spread to MD, VA, and WV. By early June reports began coming in from PA. Cases were first spotted in the mid-Atlantic region. In PA, reports have been received from 61 of the 67 counties, including Lancaster and York. Many agencies have banded together in PA to help research and match the mysterious disease with a diagnosis, including the PA Game Commission, Penn Vet and their new Wildlife Future Program (WFP). They have been analyzing birds suspected to have died from the disease. In the beginning, affected birds were mostly young fledglings, but later included adults of several common songbirds: Blue Jay, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Common Grackle, American Robin, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, House Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, European Starling, and Red- bellied Woodpecker. It’s unknown if the disease is affecting birds that don’t visit bird feeders, as it’s more difficult for the problem to be spotted. Many diseases have been ruled out to date, but a positive diagnosis proves elusive. Bird specimens sent to the various agencies were tested for several toxins, parasites, bacterial diseases, and viral infections. Scientists have ruled out Avian Influenza, West Nile virus, salmonella, herpes viruses, pox viruses, Newcastle disease virus, and Trichomonas parasites. Toxicology tests for heavy metals, common pesticides and herbicides have also been negative. It appears that the “mystery disease” is resolving on its own, but it highlights how important the role is that the public plays in wildlife health surveillance. Luckily, according to the PA Game Commission, no human health or domestic animal issues have been documented. In addition, on August 13, 2021, the Commission said they have found no indication that feeding birds or maintaining bird baths were contributing factors to its spread. PA Game Commission and WFP say it’s okay to go back to putting out feeders and bird baths that draw birds together. Because birds do gather at bird feeders and bird baths, it’s important that the public continues to follow the standard recommendation to keep your feeders and water sources clean, along with a few more guidelines as follows: 

1. If you see any disease problem around your feeders, stop feeding birds and providing water in bird baths to prevent potential spread between birds and other wildlife until you no longer observe a problem. Report sick or dead wild birds to your local Game Commission office. 

2. Clean feeders and bird baths with soap and water, then disinfect/soak with a 10% household bleach solution. After you disinfect/soak the feeders and bird baths for 10 minutes, rinse with clean water and allow to air dry. Cleaning and disinfecting should be done weekly or more often if soiled, or if they contain spoiled food. 

3. Keep pets away from sick or dead wild birds as a standard precaution. 

4. Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. If you must handle the bird, wear disposable gloves, or use inverted plastic bags on your hands to avoid direct contact. 

5. To dispose of dead birds, place in a sealed plastic bag and discard with household trash to avoid spreading the disease. (Note: If you want to dispose of the dead bird by burying, you must bury it more than 3 feet deep to prevent disease transmission to other animals if dug up.) 

6. When feeding birds, follow expert recommendations. A good reference is Audubon International Fact Sheet – Guide to Bird Feeding available on-line. They recommend using a variety of types of feeders as this spreads out the different types of bird species and reduces their interaction: hanging tube feeders, house-type feeders, ground feeders, and suet feeders.