Mysterious Ailment Blinding and Killing Birds in Washington, D.C. Area

Authorities are urging the public to take down bird feeders and baths in hopes of curbing the spread of what could be a wildlife disease

Blue jay
A blue jay photographed at a bird feeder. Fledgling blue jays and grackles in D.C., Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia have been dying of a mysterious ailment since late May. Jordan Confino via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Something has been killing birds in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia since late May, reports Mark Price for the Charlotte Observer. Wildlife managers aren’t yet sure what is causing the die off, according to a statement from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) issued last week, but many of the birds have had crusty, swollen eyeballs, accompanied by wobbly movements that suggest neurological issues.

“This is significant because it seems to be pretty widespread, and also it’s extending for a pretty good period of time. And it’s continuing,” Megan Kirchgessner, a veterinarian with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, tells Fredrick Kunkle of the Washington Post.

Kirchgessner tells the Post there have been at least 325 reports of sick or dying birds. So far, other animals do not appear to be affected by the mysterious ailment. Even among birds, reports have only concerned the fledglings of two types of birds: grackles and blue jays, per the Post.

Federal agencies are advising residents in the affected states to stop feeding birds until whatever is behind the wave of dead birds passes, because when birds gather around a feeder or a bath they can exchange diseases to one another. Officials also recommend cleaning feeders and bird baths with a 10 percent bleach and water solution.

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

Though there is no indication that whatever is killing the birds is transmissible to humans or other animals the statement from the USGS urges people to avoid handling birds and to contact their local wildlife conservation agency if they encounter sick or dead birds. If handling the animal becomes necessary, the statement says to wear rubber gloves and, if necessary, to dispose of dead birds inside sealable plastic bags in the trash.

State and federal laboratories are currently testing the remains of birds that have died in the mortality event in hopes of learning more about its causes. In the meantime, agencies are asking the public to report any observations of sick or dead birds. Virginia residents can submit a report using this online form, D.C. residents can call City Wildlife at 202-882-1000, Maryland residents can call 1-877-463-6497 and people who encountered sick or dead birds in West Virginia should call their local Division of Natural Resources office.

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