Wildlife managers are trying to trace the cause of a bird mortality event that causes eye swelling and neurological issues. Photo: Belinda Burwell, DVM

Bay-Region Bird Mortality Event Under Investigation

A disturbing trend in three Bay watershed states and Washington, D.C. has wildlife managers warning people to take down their bird feeders. A mystery illness is causing numerous reports of sick and dying birds, suffering from eye afflicitions and neurological signs.

The reports began in late May, in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C. and West Virginia. State and district wildlife agencies including the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR), D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, National Park Service, and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources are working with USGS’s National Wildlife Health Center as well as wildlife disease labs in Pennsylvania and Georgia to try to find what’s causing the mortality event.

The crusted-over eyes seen in the birds look similar to mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, a disease that mostly affects house finches and can be spread when birds eat from birdfeeders that aren’t cleaned regularly. But the neurological symptoms of birds unable to walk or fly are what clue biologists in that this is something else.

There’s no definitive cause of death now, but experts say birds congregating at feeders and baths can transmit disease to one another. So the wildlife managers advise cleaning feeders and bird baths with a 10 percent bleach solution and avoid handling birds. But if it is necessary to handle them, wear disposable gloves. Keep pets away from sick or dead birds.

According to Virginia’s state veterinarian Megan Kirchgessner, the majority of the reports DWR have fielded have been in the Arlington, Va., region and predominantly involve fledgling blue jays and grackles, but other species such as American robins, starlings and cowbirds have been reported. Kirchgessner estimates there have been about 300 reports received in Virginia.

DNR spokesman Gregg Bortz reports, “The birds identified in Maryland have been blue jays and grackles, and a few other species of land-based birds. They have been found primarily in central/northern counties. Working with our partner state and federal agencies, we are continuing to monitor this mortality event.”

If you encounter sick or dead birds, please submit an event report to your state wildlife agency. In Virginia, fill it out at dwr.virginia.gov/…/bird-mortality-reporting-form/. And in Maryland, contact the DNR/ USDA Wildlife hotline (877-463-6497).

And, Bortz advises, “If you must remove dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag to dispose of with household trash. Additional information will be shared as diagnostic results are received.”

Meg Walburn Viviano & Kathy Knotts