WASHINGTON (AP) – A mysterious disease has sickened and killed thousands of songbirds in several mid-Atlantic states since late spring. While scientists are still struggling to confirm the cause, juvenile birds appear to be the most vulnerable. The US Geological Survey, which monitors responses to some natural hazards and risks, has recommended that people temporarily abolish bird feeders and clean bird baths to reduce places where birds could congregate and potentially spread disease.
WHICH BIRDS ARE AFFECTED?
So far, most of the birds reported as sick have been young blue jays, robins, European starlings and grackles, but other songbirds are also affected.
The main visible symptoms are puffy eyes or crusty discharge around the eyes, and movements out of balance, which can indicate neurological damage.
WHERE DO BIRDS GET SICK?
Wildlife managers and veterinarians first received reports of sick birds in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Washington, DC in late April and May. Recent reports came from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Ohio, and Indiana. The outbreak may have peaked in June and is receding in some early hotspots, but it is continuing in other regions, according to Brian Evans, an avian ecologist at the Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
WHAT CAUSES THE DISEASE?
Scientists from the USGS, Smithsonian, and universities are still working to pinpoint the causes. By testing sick and deceased birds, they determined that this outbreak was not primarily caused by salmonella, chlamydia, avian flu virus, West Nile virus, or some other viruses that commonly affect birds.
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?
USGS recommends that people remove backyard bird feeders, avoid handling sick birds, and keep pets away from birds. The agency also recommends that those who have bird baths disinfect them with a solution of 10% bleach and 90% water.
“Because we don’t know what it is, we have to be much more vigilant. We still don’t know if it’s caused by a virus or a bacterium or a toxic chemical in pesticides, said Jordan Rutter, director of public affairs at the American Bird Conservancy, a nonprofit group.
However, removing bird feeders doesn’t have to mean ignoring the birds’ needs. Rutter suggested that people with gardens could incorporate native plants that provide food like berries and nectar while attracting insects that birds eat.
HOW UNUSUAL IS THIS OUTBREAK?
Birds are susceptible to various viruses and bacteria. When a contagious pathogen spreads among birds in an area, wildlife managers typically recommend that residents remove the outdoor feeding grounds. This spring, an outbreak of salmonella among wild songbirds in several states prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue such a warning.
The difference in this case is that scientists do not know the cause of the disease.
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