State advises residents to take down bird feeders, birdbaths as mysterious illness spreads among birds

  • The swollen eyes and crusty discharge seen on this bird are a common sign of an unknown disease affecting songbirds throughout the eastern U.S. USGS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/21/2021 2:03:46 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The state has advised residents to take down their bird feeders and birdbaths as a mysterious illness spreads among birds in some parts of the country.

While no cases of the illness have been confirmed among birds in Massachusetts or contiguous states, the precautionary measure does no harm and helps to prevent disease spread, said Joan Walsh, chair of ornithology at Mass Audubon. The state also is asking residents to report dead birds with no apparent cause of death to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The mysterious illness causes conjunctivitis — an inflammatory infection of the eye known in humans as pink eye — as well as neurological symptoms. This combination of symptoms can appear in birds as swollen, crusted eyes, difficulty flying, and other unusual movements, such as lying sideways and kicking.

Conjunctivitis is fairly common in birds, said Walsh, who works out of Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, but the accompanying neurological symptoms are more concerning.

As researchers study the carcasses of afflicted birds, “the thing that gets real interesting is they’re not coming up with any of the usual subjects we’re used to seeing,” Walsh said. “That makes it somewhat novel, so that’s both interesting and concerning … It’s a big question mark.”

Wildlife officials first observed the disease in May in mid-Atlantic states, but it has more recently been found in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as parts of the Midwest.

By taking down feeders and birdbaths, residents can help eliminate opportunities for viral spread among birds. Species most commonly affected were blue jays, common grackles, European starlings, and American robins, though other species of songbirds also have been affected.

“Exactly the way we were asked by the CDC to socially distance for COVID, that’s what we’re doing for the birds,” said Katie Schroeder, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Podos Lab, which conducts research mainly focused on songbirds.

Feeders and birdbaths “are places where birds come together in high densities,” Schroeder said, “so that means it’s going to be a high-risk place for them in case any of the individuals that come in contact with them are sick.”

Residents don’t have to worry about birds going hungry due to a lack of bird feeders, according to Walsh and Schroeder.

“This is the absolute best time of the year for us to take our feeders in,” Walsh said, noting that “there’s lots of natural food out there” for birds. Additionally, bird feeders can attract bears.

“It’s really not going to be an issue for the birds,” Schroeder said, “and just a really small sacrifice for humans,” who may have to venture a bit farther into nature to see the birds they typically attract to their yards.

Novel illnesses likely occur in birds fairly often, according to Walsh, but it’s “pretty uncommon” that people will notice.

“One of the reasons it did get noticed so quickly, I think, is because it’s primarily affecting birds in suburban areas,” Walsh said. “It’s affecting very common birds … Birds that are in people’s yards, so there were a lot of eyeballs on it.”

With people spending more time outdoors due to the pandemic, Walsh added, “I think there are people who may not have noticed this before who now did.”

Walsh said it’s also possible that the disease has a cause that is not communicable. But right now, much remains unknown.

While there have not been any recorded cases of the illness spreading to other species, the state advises residents to ensure that their pets stay away from dead birds, which should also be a “general precaution.”

People should avoid handling birds unless necessary, but if needed, they should wear disposable gloves and wash their hands after handling a bird, according to state guidelines. If picking up a dead bird, the state advises using an inverted plastic bag over the hand and discarding the carcass in a sealed plastic bag with household trash, or burying it deeply.

Residents can report dead birds without an apparent cause of death to www.mass.gov/forms/report-observations-of-dead-birds.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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