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West Virginia Monitoring Mysterious Bird Illness

A photo from the National Park Service shows a bird found in the Washington, D.C., area with swollen eyes and crusty discharge. (Photo Courtesy of National Park Service)

CHARLESTON — While COVID-19 appears to be greatly diminished in the Mountain State, wildlife experts are trying to find answers to a new plague affecting birds all over the east coast.

According to the Division of Natural Resources, birds in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and other states are seeing cases of sick or dead birds.

Since May, state and federal wildlife agencies have received reports of birds acting abnormally and exhibiting signs of neurological decay, such as exhibiting confusion or lethargy.

These birds are often found with swollen eyes and what is described as a crusty discharge.

In a recent press release, the WVDNR said it sent several birds from Berkeley and Jefferson counties off to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study for further investigation. Multiple state and federal agencies are trying to find answers.

“The WVDNR, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and National Park Service are continuing to work in partnership with diagnostic laboratories to investigate the cause of mortality,” WVDNR said in a statement. “Those laboratories include the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, SCWDS, and the University of Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program.”

Speculation about the cause of the deaths and health issues include a new disease, pesticide use, and the onslaught of cicadas. The illness also appears to affect multiple bird species, such as robins, blue jays, starlings, and sparrows.

Katie Fallon, a co-founder of the Morgantown-based Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, said her organization has only received a couple of European Starlings with similar symptoms between May and June. The ACCA works with injured or ill birds to nurse them back to health, helping more than 300 birds so far this year.

“My understanding is the Eastern Panhandle is really the area affected in West Virginia,” Fallon said. “We really haven’t had calls about sick birds and we get calls about everything … we are definitely looking out for it and we want anyone who sees birds with these symptoms to report it.”

Fallon said she also doesn’t know what the cause of the illness is, though she noted it seems to be affecting young birds not long after they leave their nests. She said the ACCA received several sick birds with similar symptoms in 2016, the last time the cicadas emerged. If birds are mostly feeding on cicadas due to their abundance, there could be a link.

“I don’t think anyone has determined what this is yet,” Fallon said. “There is a suggestion it could have something to do with the cicadas. Perhaps things people are spraying in order to keep cicadas off of trees. But from what I’ve read, it seems to be young birds that are affected mostly.”

According to the WVDNR, the spread of the new disease could be due to birds congregating at feeders and baths, spreading the illness to other birds and continuing the vicious cycle. WVDNR recommends that people take down any bird feeders and baths until officials provide additional instructions. Bird feeders and baths should be emptied and washed with hot, soapy water and disinfected with a bleach solution.

Dawn Hewitt — editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and Watching Backyard Birds in Marietta, Ohio – said it’s common for many people to put out bird feeders and baths without considering the need to keep them clean. Hewitt recommends people wash their feeders and baths monthly to avoid spread of other avian illnesses.

“We always recommend in our magazine for people to wash their feeders and baths regularly,” Hewitt said. “There are many diseases that birds can spread among themselves if feeders and baths are not kept clean.”

Some of those diseases include salmonella, aspergillosis (a respiratory disease caused by mold on seeds), and avian pox. Hewitt said she was keeping her hummingbird feeders out, but she took her tube feeders down. Instead, she is spreading seeds along the top rail of her fence in order to keep birds from congregating in one spot.

If someone encounters a dead bird or a bird with crusty discharge, swollen eyes, and other issues, the WVDNR advises to avoid handling the bird. Use disposable gloves if necessary. Keep pets away from the birds. Call your local WVDNR district office, but if you must handle the bird, use a sealable plastic bag and dispose of it in your trash.


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