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Sickness silences songbirds

Avian enthusiasts, scientists alarmed by lethal mystery

Staff photo / Allie Vugrincic Brian Hall, manager of Centerra Country Store in Cortland, talks about local birders and their enthusiasm for feeding their feathery friends. Centerra goes through about four tons of bird food a week, Hall said.

Heather Merritt, longtime operator of Birds in Flight Sanctuary, is not taking in sick songbirds for fear they may infect her other injured and educational birds with a mysterious and deadly illness that has been spreading quickly across the country.

“We’re here to help, and we’re not able to help,” said Merritt, who has been receiving upward of 100 calls per day to the Howland sanctuary from residents of about 40 nearby counties who have noticed birds with swollen or “crusty” eyes and off-balance movements that suggest neurological problems.

Merritt has started asking people to send photos or videos of the birds before she accepts them. If the bird appears to have the symptoms of the mystery ailment, she tells people to wait and call back if the bird is still alive the next day. “And I have yet to get one call back that they are alive,” Merritt said.

THE SICKNESS

Wildlife managers, rehabilitators and veterinarians first received reports in late April and May of sick birds in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Washington, D.C., but recent reports from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Indiana and Ohio indicate the malady — whatever it may be — is spreading, despite the fact that birds are not migrating and are fairly stationary as they raise their young.

So far, the majority of birds reported as ailing have been fledgling blue jays, American robins, European starlings and common grackles, but other songbirds also may be affected.

“This is very alarming,” said Carol Babyak, a Howland bird enthusiast and member of the Mahoning Valley Chapter of the National Audubon Society. “The birds are telling us something. Having this happen, it’s not good.”

Not much is known about the seemingly contagious sickness. Hayley Shoemaker, program coordinator with the Ohio State University Extension in Mahoning County, has an information sheet on hand to answer questions from callers who want to know what is happening to their backyard birds.

“Right now, the cause of this is still something they’re trying to figure out,” Shoemaker said.

Diagnostic laboratories, including the U.S. Geological Survey, National Wildlife Center and universities, are working to determine the cause. Connections to pesticide exposure, the recent cicada emergence and possible viral illness are being explored — but so far, there are no clear answers.

FEEDING THE BIRDS

Wildlife agencies are asking people to take down bird feeders and birdbaths temporarily in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.

“A lot of people are hesitant to do that because we don’t want to see the birds not coming to their usual bird bath or bird feeder,” Shoemaker said. Removing those items, however, reduces congregation.

“When you think back to the beginning of the (COVID-19) pandemic when we told everybody to respect everybody’s space — that’s essentially what we’re doing with the birds,” Shoemaker explained.

Asking die-hard birders to remove their feeders is a tall order, though. Brian Hall, manager at Centerra County Store in Cortland, said the store goes through almost four tons of birdseed in a week. It’s flying off the shelves.

“People are still continuing to feed the birds,” Hall said. “The recommendation that I’ve been making is that if they do notice sickness at their feeders, stop feeding (for) two weeks, wash their feeders, then go back to feeding them.”

The USGS recommends disinfecting bird feeders and baths with a solution of 10 percent bleach and 90 percent water.

Hall said while people usually feed wild birds from early fall to late spring and “let nature take its course” in the summer when natural food sources for birds are abundant, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in late March 2019, “we’re still hot and heavy feeding birds.

“People are home. They’re bored, and the birds are a lot of fun to watch,” he said.

CLOSE TO HOME

Hall said he has not seen any sick birds and has heard the illness still is not prevalent in the Mahoning Valley. Babyak also has not seen any of her backyard birds fall ill but said a neighbor about half a mile north of her has found four dead robins within the past month. Merritt said the sickness is here, and has been for about three weeks.

“People needed to take their bird feeders down like a month ago, and they still need to continue to keep their feeders down,” Merritt said.

Shoemaker said the OSU extension is encouraging people who see birds exhibiting symptoms to report them through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources species sighting portal at https://apps.ohiodnr.gov/wildlife/speciessighting/.

She’s also asking people not to touch sick or dying birds, as it is unclear how the disease is being transmitted. Dead birds should be removed with gloves and placed into the trash in a disposable plastic bag so that animals or neighbors won’t come into contact with them.

So far, no other animals are being affected, according to the OSU extension fact sheet, but it is possible it is spreading to other species of birds. Merritt has sent several hawks that were displaying similar symptoms to be tested by the Division of Wildlife.

Her Birds in Flight Sanctuary is in the process of moving from Howland to a new location in Vienna, where Merritt will have a quarantine unit to care for birds and wild animals with unknown diseases.

She said if the sickness now affecting songbirds still is prevalent by the end of August, it may spread even faster as migration begins.

Hall said he expects that local birders will continue feeding their birds despite all, but with precautions — they’re not going to let their birds die, if they can help it.

“People around here are die-hard birders,” Hall said. “If it comes to a choice, not feeding the birds or feeding the birds, they’re going to feed the birds.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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