No One Knows What’s Killing These Wild Songbirds

No One Knows What’s Killing These Wild Songbirds
A house sparrow (Passer domesticus) (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP, Getty Images)

Something is sickening and killing wild birds in multiple states, and no one knows what it is yet. Since May, wildlife experts and officials have reported unexplained die-offs throughout the Eastern half of the U.S. So far, the only thing clear is that these cases aren’t being caused by common culprits like salmonella.

The first reports, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, emerged in late May from wildlife handlers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, as well as Washington D.C.; since then, similar reports from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana have come in. The reports have involved songbirds (typically young) found with eyes that are swollen and/or have a crusty discharge on them, often rendering them blind. The birds also tend to have neurological symptoms that make it hard for them to navigate as usual, like dizziness and lethargy.

“We have received 300 birds so far,” Chelsea Jones, a spokesperson for the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, Virginia, told Live Science. “But that is just counting the deceased birds; the real total is much higher.”

A list of the birds affected include but are not limited to: blue jays, European starlings, common grackles, American robins, house sparrows, Eastern bluebirds, and red-bellied woodpeckers.

Right now, experts only seem to have ruled out possible explanations. Tests haven’t found the presence of salmonella and chlamydia bacteria, viruses like West Nile and avian influenza, nor other parasites like trichomonas in these birds, though more tests are ongoing.

“I think what’s especially challenging about this is that it’s not localised … to one specific geographic area [and] it’s not localised to one particular bird species,” Lisa Murphy, associate professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told NPR last week.

While the cause of this birdemic remains unknown, at this point, people and domestic birds don’t seem to be in any danger themselves. And there are steps bird lovers can take to help minimise its potential spread. Agencies like the USGS have called for people in these affected areas to stop feeding wild birds for the moment, while people with bird feeders and bird baths should clean them with water mixed with 10% bleach. Ideally, you should also bring the feeders inside or out of use if possible, since they can serve as places for birds to crowd together.

If you do see dead birds in your area, you should contact your local wildlife conservation agency and avoid directly handling them. But if you do try to handle them, then you should wear disposable gloves or use an inverted plastic bag to pick them up, and definitely keep them away from pets and other birds.