Survival Update

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Mysterious New Disease Is Blinding and Killing Hundreds of Birds

Blue Jay Sitting In Birdfeeder

Birds in the mid-Atlantic are disappearing at an alarming rate, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Residents are being told to refrain from feeding any birds until more is known about the mysterious illness causing eye swelling, brain damage, and death in the animals.

In a statement from the USGS on behalf of a number of state agencies in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and DC, they warned that birds congregating in feeders and baths are most likely to transmit the disease. Wildlife experts have not yet identified the disease. The USGS is asking residents to disinfect and remove bird baths and feeders from their homes until the “mortality event” has ended or until more is known about how the disease can be treated or prevented.

They’re also asking residents to contact their state or district wildlife conservation agency if they see or come in contact with sick dead birds in the area, especially if they exhibit signs of eye inflammation and discharge, imbalance or seizures. The illness does not appear to be transmissible to humans or other animal species, but extreme precautions should still be taken if handling one of these birds becomes necessary.

Megan Kirchgessner, a veterinarian with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, told the Washington Post the phenomenon is “significant” for how “widespread” it is. “And it’s continuing,” she added. More than 325 reports of sick birds have been collected so far by the agencies since they first identified the mysterious disease in May.

Summer is the prime season for birdwatching at your window, but Kirchgessner urges watchers to leave the creatures to their own devices this season.

“From a veterinary perspective, especially in the springtime when food is abundant, there’s no reason for those feeders to be out,” Kirchgessner told the Washington Post. “And to be perfectly honest, especially in a situation like this, they can do more harm than good.”

Severe side effects have been found in two bird species: grackles and blue jays.

“This is truly scary,” Jim Monsma, head organizer for DC’s City Wildlife, told DCist. “We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, as it were, yet. And it’s just every day more and more birds.”

Infected birds identified by the agency are being euthanized on the spot.

“At this point, we’re so inundated, we are just euthanizing because it’s a miserable condition for these birds,” Monsma told DCist. “Our role at this point is simply to spare them additional suffering and an inevitable death.”

As reported by the Charlotte Observer, some citizen scientists speculate that the disease is linked to Brood X cicadas, which awakened and emerged this spring after 17 years underground. Gackles and blue jays are known to eat cicadas, which may become “fungus-infested” during their subterranean sleep. However, no scientists have so far supported this hypothesis.