Mysterious songbird disease fades in North Carolina, cause still unknown

The mysterious disease primarily affected chicks of larger songbirds, such as American robins. [courtesy NCWildlife.org]

NC Wildlife Resources Commission officials have announced that the outbreak affecting songbirds since May 2020 appears to be abating and, thanks to diligent reports from North Carolina residents, it does not appear to have had a noticeable impact on the birds of our state.

The mysterious disease has been reported primarily in the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, and as far south as Virginia with a few cases in Florida.

It primarily affected the chicks of larger songbirds, such as blue jays, American robins, European starlings, and Common Blackbirds.

The sick birds showed an unusual set of symptoms starting with crusty, swollen eyes that progressed to tremors, an inability to maintain balance, and other neurological issues that ultimately ended in death despite best efforts to treat the birds.

Several state wildlife agencies, conservation organizations and wildlife diagnostic labs have collaboratively tracked the outbreak to try to identify a cause, but its source remains a mystery.

Hypothetical causes ranging from the emergence of the Brood X cicada to a variety of viruses, bacteria and parasites have all been ruled out.

In North Carolina, laboratory results of deceased birds that have been reported by the public indicate that malnutrition and physical trauma are the cause of death – common dangers to young, inexperienced birds. Additional lab reports are still pending, but biologists do not anticipate new findings.

Other reports of sick songbirds in North Carolina were mainly of finches showing signs of common bird-eating diseases, such as avian conjunctivitis and salmonella poisoning.

Reports from other species have found more typical causes of death, including collisions with windows and moving vehicles.

Most songbird calls to the Wildlife Commission these days are from people wanting to know if it is safe to put their bird feeders back in place.

If you decide to relocate your bird feeder, it is a good idea to commit to sterilizing your feeders often. Frequent cleaning will help prevent the spread of common bird diseases such as avian conjunctivitis, salmonella poisoning and aspergillosis in hummingbirds. Salmonella can also make people sick, so feeders should never be cleaned in the same area where the food is being prepared.

Songbird feeders should be disinfected at least every two weeks, and more often in damp or humid conditions. Wildlife managers advise:

  • Remove any remaining seeds and scrub off any debris.
  • Soak the feeder in a bleach solution of one part bleach to nine parts water for 10 minutes.
  • Dry the charger completely before filling it.

Hummingbird feeders should be sanitized at least once a week, and more often in damp or humid conditions. Wildlife managers advise:

  • Soak the feeder in a bleach solution of one part bleach to nine parts water for 10 minutes.
  • Dry the charger completely before filling it.
  • Fill with a sugar water solution, which is one part table sugar to four parts water, with no added colors or any other form of natural or artificial sweetener.

Wildlife Commission biologists will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates to the public as more information becomes available. In the meantime, immediately remove bird feeders if sick or dead birds are found near the area and contact the NC Wildlife Hotline for further instructions Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. , at 866-318-2401 or by email anytime at HWI @ ncwildlife .org.

If handling a dead bird, wear gloves or use an inverted plastic bag. Dispose of the bird in a sealed bag in the household garbage or bury it deeply. Keep pets, including pet birds, and children away from sick or dead wild birds.

If you want to consider an alternative to bird feeders to attract birds and other wildlife to your property, Wildlife Commission Extension Biologist Falyn Owens suggests creating natural foods by planting trees, shrubs. and native flowers.

“When it comes to contagious diseases, birds are no different from other wild animals – when they regularly gather in the same place to eat from the same ‘plate’, they also share germs that can spread disease.” , Owens said. “Native plants are natural sources of food for birds. They provide seeds, nuts, nectar, berries, and support the native insects that most songbirds need to survive their first few weeks of life. Plant life also allows birds to feed without congregating around a single food source, reducing the risk of disease transmission.

Fall is a great time to plant. Native plants that benefit birds can be found on the Audubon North Carolina website.


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