Unknown illness killing songbirds
By Isaac Gleitz, Contributing Writer
During the past several weeks, sick and dead songbirds have been reported in more than half of Indiana counties, including Harrison, Floyd, Washington, Clark and Orange.
The cause of illness remains unknown, but the signs are visibly noticeable. Affected birds fall victim to neurological damage, eye swelling and crusty discharge around the eyes. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources reports the principal species affected are the blue jay, American robin, common grackle, starling, northern cardinal and brown-headed cowbird.
The first Indiana reports came from Monroe County in late May. Since then, the DNR has collected samples from dead birds and sent them to the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. The results are pending and inconclusive thus far. All of the birds sampled have tested negative for West Nile virus and avian influenza (AIV), a virus that can prove catastrophic among poultry flocks.
The DNR recommends Hoosiers remove their feeders to halt the spread of the illness. It also recommends they wear gloves if they touch a dead bird and limit avian contact with pets.
James Brindle, director of communications for the Indiana DNR, said the threat posed by the illness is not yet known, but the DNR is trying to minimize the damage.
“We’re just trying to limit the spread as best we can while the scientists work to figure out exactly what this is,” Brindle said. “Mitigation is the best thing we can do at this point.”
Brindle said the division of fish and wildlife, along with wildlife disease biologists, ornithologists and others, is on the case.
As of two weeks ago, there had been 285 reports of bird illnesses or deaths resulting from the undetermined ailment. The illness was first noticed in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland, but it now prevails in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, he said.
The DNR is making swift recommendations, Brindle said, because of how widespread the illness is and how little is known about it.
“We just want to raise awareness of the issue,” Brindle said. “We’re doing this in the best interest of trying to slow the spread of this terrible illness.”
In a press conference July 2, Allisyn Gillet, Indiana DNR state ornithologist, said Hoosiers won’t know the cause of birds’ illness for a while because reporting and testing is a time-consuming process.
When a sick or dead bird is reported, it needs to be supported with a detailed description, ideally with photo or video evidence. Researchers only collect a sample from the bird if it might help their investigation efforts. Once a sample is collected, it is bagged and frozen for preservation purposes before being sent to a laboratory.
This investigation will be especially lengthy in this case due to the size of the group working on the issue. Figuring this out requires a multi-state and organization collaboration, Gillet said.
Researchers do not yet know if the problem is caused by humans. They are also unable to predict how much harm this could inflict on certain species or the local ecosystem, Gillet explained.
Benjamin O’Neal, a Franklin College wildlife ecology professor and bird researcher, said he has reacted to the news with caution. From his studies, he knows that most diseases are very commonplace and natural, although this could be an exception. He supports the recommendation to take down bird feeders, a move that he deems to show prudent management.
“I don’t think that asking Hoosiers to pause their bird feeding for a couple months is at all unreasonable,” O’Neal said. “Birds don’t need us to feed them. The only reason we feed birds is for human pleasure, and some people who feed birds naively think they’re helping the birds, and, in general, they are not.”
In many ways, O’Neal continued, humans are actually harming the well-being of birds. He and other researchers have defined population trajectories for most Indiana birds, and many of them are trending in a negative direction. Three of the primary reasons for the declining populations (habitat destruction, feral cats and bird strikes) are caused by humans, he said.
Although the public takes action only when a shocking incident occurs, birds are often struggling behind the scenes. For instance, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management reports that Hoosiers have lost 85% of their original wetland coverage to development, leaving birds to cope with a loss of home.
“The things that humans do have massive impacts on bird populations,” O’Neal said. “It’s not just when we have acute issues like we do now. I think the scientific community is well aware of persistent, chronic decreases in bird populations.”
O’Neal said he has nothing against people who like to enjoy the company of birds. But instead of being distraught that bird feeders are being taken down, he said humans could use this time of realizing how much an influence their behavior has on the natural world.
“This is just one example of helping us wake up a little bit and be mindful of the impact that humans are having,” O’Neal said. “Let’s not be lulled to sleep; let’s be vigilant.”
Brad Bumgardner, executive director of the Indiana Audobon Society, agreed birdfeeder use should be suspended.
“There is an abundance of food out there right now,” Bumgardner said. “It is completely safe to take your feeders down.”
Songbirds don’t naturally congregate to eat, Bumgardner continued. That was inspired by humans with artificial feeding. In the current era, after seeing a virus run its course in human populations, avian advocates like him want birds to spread out.
“I think we are probably a little more sensitive right now, coming out of our own pandemic,” Bumgardner said. “A year ago, we shut down our buffets. This is really what the birds need to do. We’re shutting down the bird buffets.”
Additionally, he recommends people take their bird baths and hummingbird feeders inside, as birds congregate in these spaces as well.
Those who discover a sick or dead bird with the previously mentioned symptoms can report their finding at IN.gov/sickwildlife or call 1-317-232-4080 for the division of fish and wildlife.