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Advice for bird watchers as researchers try to get to root of mysterious deaths

Wildlife laboratories up and down the East Coast are trying to figure out what is killing blue jays, crows and related bird species, said Ed Clark, the founder and president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.

“Right now, the only thing with which we can draw parallels is an outbreak of a disease in house finches that was discovered by the Wildlife Center of Virginia back a while ago, it’s probably been about 30 years ago now,” said Clark, identifying the cause of that outbreak as a mycoplasma bacteria that caused a conjunctivitis that left affected birds with red, swollen, runny, or crusty eyes.

“It would not surprise me at all if whatever’s going on now is not a similar organism. But at this point, we just don’t know,” Clark said. “What we’re seeing is birds are developing a problem with their vision, their eyes are clouding, becoming obscure. Whatever it is, it is clearly affecting their eyes, and it is also causing neurologic deficits and eventually killing the birds.

‘Whether that is by direct pathogenic action, by disease mechanism or whether it’s because the birds are starving or flying into things that they can’t see, I just personally do not know. I know that they’re looking at an awful lot of these birds,” Clark said.

It has been speculated that the cause of the mysterious bird deaths is pesticides, and further speculated that because it seems to be coinciding with the emergence of cicadas that the spread of the illness is the result of people spraying to stem the tide of cicadas.

“The fact that this disease does seem to be focused on one group of birds and not ubiquitous to all songbirds suggests that it is a disease organism and not an environmental contaminant that would be more even-handed in its negative impacts,” Clark said.

You may have read that it is being advised that people who have bird feeders in their yards should remove them, at least in the interim, until researchers can figure out what is causing the rash of bird deaths.

At least as far as our end of the Shenandoah Valley is concerned, “we’re not seeing this issue in our area,” Clark said, so the Wildlife Center is not asking people to take down their bird feeders, for now.

“But we are advising people to be vigilant,” Clark said. “If you see birds that have apparent eye problems or neurologic problems, you should notify the Wildlife Center or the Department of Wildlife Resources right away. And if you must handle these animals, do so with disposable gloves, or some type of personal protective equipment that can be disinfected.

“We don’t know what the organism is, we have no reason to believe that it’s dangerous to humans, but neither do we have evidence that it’s not,” Clark said.

In the meantime, make sure to keep your bird feeders clean.

“We always recommend that people keep their feeders clean, because it doesn’t have to be anything quite this catastrophic or dramatic,” Clark said. “That means spraying your feeders to keep them clean, spray them off with the hose, get the chunks of decayed seeds, the moldy mildewy materials, just get it off and then spray the feeder down with a Clorox bleach solution or 10 percent bleach solution. It’s not horribly toxic, but it is very, very effective, at disinfecting those feeders, and it prevents one sick bird from coming in and infecting the feeder, and then having a little mini-epidemic on your hands.”

Story by Chris Graham

Augusta Health Augusta Free Press Kris McMackin CPA
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