June 23, 2021 -- A sudden outbreak of sick and dying birds in the South and Midwest has left scientists scrambling to figure out why.
Spikes in the number of ill or dying birds have been reported by wildlife experts in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and Washington, DC, during the past month, NBC News reported. Blue jays, common grackles, and European starlings are among the top birds affected.
“We’re experiencing an unusual amount of bird mortality this year,” Kate Slankard, an avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, told the network. “We have yet to figure out what the problem is. The condition seems to be pretty deadly.”
The birds act as though they are blind and appear to have crusty or swollen eyes. Other symptoms include seizures, a hard time keeping balance, and odd behaviors such as not flying away when approached.
The U.S. Geological Survey is investigating, along with state wildlife agencies and university researchers.
“They’ll just sit still, often kind of shaking,” Slankard said. “It’s pretty safe to say that hundreds of birds in the state have had this problem.”
Scientists say potential causes of the deaths include infectious diseases, pesticides, and the emergence of cicadas, Laura Kearns, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, told NBC News.
“We’re all working together as a multistate group to try to figure out what’s going on,” Slankard said. “Diagnosing these problems is complex because several rounds of lab tests must be done.”
In Indiana, where troubling deaths of blue jays, robins, northern cardinals, and brown-headed cowbirds have been reported in five counties, the affected birds have tested negative for avian influenza and West Nile virus, Department of Natural Resources spokesperson James Brindle told NBC News.
Scientists are not sure if this incident is connected to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds in New Mexico in September.
“This is probably a new issue,” Slankard said.
Birds that gather at feeders or baths can pass diseases on to one another, the U.S. Geological Survey says. To help stop the spread of any possible disease, the agency asks that people in areas where the outbreaks are happening stop feeding birds for now.
Experts urge the public to report any suspicious bird deaths and to avoid touching or otherwise handling birds. Bird feeders should be removed and sterilized with a 10% bleach solution, as they are a breeding ground for germs, they say.