Emerging Bird Disease Poses Threat to Wisconsin Birds
One of the benefits of having experts like the Masked Biologist as a WXPR contributor is that you get the latest breaking wildlife news, good or bad. Unfortunately, this week’s Wildlife Matters has some bad news, and the Masked Biologist is asking you to keep your eyes open for birds with their eyes pasted shut.
Passion for natural resources can be an emotional roller coaster. You can get some good news one day, bad news the next. Lately, it seems more bad news than good, seeming to last longer. We hear bad news about white nose syndrome wiping out bats, for years, then get a glimpse of good news that maybe some bats are showing signs of resistance or adaptation. That’s the way it goes anymore. Unfortunately, I have more bad news today. There is a new bird disease. It is crippling and so far 100% fatal. It is very new to us here in Wisconsin, in fact this may be the first you are hearing of it, but it will not be the last.
It seemed to have started out, in all places, in the Washington DC area some time in late April or early May. Rehabilitators started getting multiple admissions of birds with crusted-over eyes, blindness, loss of balance, seizures, and inevitably death. Initially, it seemed to be focused on blue jays, grackles, and starlings, but over time the list grew to include cardinals, northern flickers, tufted titmice, house sparrows, American robins, northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, brown-headed cowbirds and Carolina wrens. It didn’t just stay in the Washington DC and Baltimore MD locales either. Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana started reporting birds with the same symptoms in June. As recently as last week, there were unconfirmed reports of similar symptoms observed in birds in Wisconsin.
Birds getting nasty crusty eyes is not necessarily new or alarming in all cases. Birds can get conjunctivitis, or pink eye, like what humans get. It seems more common in small birds like pine siskins and finches that are also susceptible to salmonella, and they usually get it in the late winter and early spring. This is something different, and to date scientists do not know what is causing it or how to treat it. On the east coast, rehabilitators are euthanizing hundreds of birds because they cannot be helped. One article I read included an interview with ornithologist Brian Evans with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. In it he mentions that there are some hypothesizing that this illness has something to do with the Brood X cicada hatch being experienced in those areas. The timeline of the affliction and the geographic range of the occurrences seem to line up with the timing and location of the hatch. Perhaps the birds are feeding their young with cicadas tainted with pesticides, or maybe it is caused by an unidentified fungus that they spread that is deadly to their predators. If so, this would be good news for us. From what I can tell based on what little has been written about this disease to date, no one knows about transmissibility from sick to healthy birds. If it is a fungus, that could be bad—especially since a number of the bird species are known to frequent bird feeders. If it is caused by ingesting specific insects, we could be in pretty good shape here in the Northwoods where cicadas are uncommon. It could take some time to make a determination about this disease, and in the meanwhile, many more birds will die.
So what does that mean to us here in northern Wisconsin? Keep an eye out for sick or injured birds, which people here tend to do anyway. If you see a bird with a crust over its eyes, acting blind, exhibiting seizures or loss of balance, you should call a wildlife health professional. Whether you work with a wildlife rehabilitator or you call the Department of Natural Resources, it is important to share the information. They will probably want to make arrangements to collect a dying or freshly dead bird. If you need to handle one of these birds, make sure to take precautions—wear protective gear and wash thoroughly afterward. Hopefully there will be good news about this disease passing us by or researchers determining the cause and source, and I will pass that along. In the meanwhile, keep your eyes open and keep your birdfeeders clean.