Social distancing for birds? States order feeders removed amid mysterious avian deaths

Backyard bird watchers are being asked to take away feeders and birdbaths to help stop the spread of an as-yet unexplained ailment.

This bird was found in the Washington, D.C. metro region with swollen eyes and crusty discharge, a sign observed on most birds affected by a mysterious ailment in the region. (courtesy Leslie Frattaroli/NPS)

This bird was found in the Washington, D.C. metro region with swollen eyes and crusty discharge, a sign observed on most birds affected by a mysterious ailment in the region. (courtesy Leslie Frattaroli/NPS)

We’ve all become too familiar in the past year and a half with the idea of social distancing to prevent the spread of disease. Now, environmental officials in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and other states are encouraging residents to eliminate people-provided spots for birds to gather because a mysterious sickness is killing our feathered friends.

Delaware environmental scientist and wildlife biologist Jordan Terrell said the state first started getting calls in mid-to late May from people who had found dead birds.

“What we’re seeing in the field is actually that these birds are either experiencing some neurological symptoms that cause erratic flight and some weird behavior, and we’re also seeing some eye crusting and swelling that usually is associated with almost like blindness. Their eyes encrusting, it gets so bad that they can’t see what they’re doing,” she said.

The birds almost immediately die after exhibiting those symptoms, Terrell said.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control is sending dead bird samples to the animal diagnostic laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square.

“In Delaware, we’re seeing this in mostly blue jays, starlings, American robins. It’s also been seen in common grackles,” Terrell said.

Delaware has received 50 reports so far. The Pennsylvania Game Commission says dead birds have been found in 27 counties, including 15 cases from Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties. There have been limited reports in New Jersey, as well.

Birds exhibiting similar symptoms have been found in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Even though it’s not clear what is causing the bird deaths, Delaware environmental officials have issued a public advisory for backyard bird watchers to limit places where birds congregate. That means taking down that bird feeder and emptying the birdbath until scientists can figure out what’s going on.

Pennsylvania issued similar advice as a recommendation. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife says residents there should only remove birdbaths or feeders if they find sick or dead birds on their property.

“Science has told us in the past that when birds and other wildlife congregate in common places, that’s usually a good sign that they can transmit disease and other illnesses back and forth. So we just want the public to avoid creating those situations for wildlife,” Terrell said.

“We are absolutely recommending that anyone who has bird feeders or birdbaths in their yard, that those be removed until we deem that this mortality event has ended.”

Feeders and birdbaths should also be cleaned with a 10% bleach/90% water solution before being put back into use when recommended.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Hummingbirds have not been affected, and nectar feeders can remain in place.

Terrell urged keeping pets and children away from any sick or dead birds you may find. Anyone who sees a live bird exhibiting symptoms such as erratic flight, stumbling, or crusty eye discharge can call Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research at 302-737-9543.

Delaware residents who find dead birds that may have displayed the same symptoms can call the state Division of Fish and Wildlife at 302-735-3600. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, dead birds can be reported to UPenn’s lab online. Anyone who finds a dead bird in New Jersey can email the state Office of Fish and Wildlife Health and Forensics or call 1-877-WARNDEP ((1-877-927-6337).

Avoid handling dead birds if possible, but if one must be moved, be sure to wear disposable gloves while handling the animal.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal