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Help stop the spread of mystery bird illness

Birding social media channels crackle with concern and dismay.

Most people seem to have heard by now, but for those who somehow missed the sad news: A mystery songbird illness first spotted in April in Washington, D.C., now afflicts thousands of birds in the Southeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region, including virtually all of Pennsylvania.

Witnesses report finding birds lifeless or displaying distressing symptoms — swollen, crusted eyes, lethargy and the inability to fly or walk.

It has been seen in a wide array of birds, including Northern cardinals, Eastern bluebirds, Carolina wrens and chickadees, house finches and sparrows, and red-bellied woodpeckers, but the Pennsylvania Game Commission said the malady appears to be targeting fledgling blue jays, common grackles, European starlings and American robins.

Suspected cases had been reported in all but four of the Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, according to the Game Commission’s July 8 update. Most had been reported in the southeastern corner of the state, the fewest in the northcentral region.

Testing is underway at federal and state agencies. Researchers don’t yet know the cause, but have ruled out a number of bird ailments including salmonella, chlamydia, avian influenza virus and West Nile virus. It also is not the conjunctivitis that has infected house finches in the past.

Some wonder whether a deadly fungus killing Brood X cicadas crossed into the bird population or whether pesticides absorbed by cicadas during their years-long underground stay are poisoning birds who eat the cicadas. We just don’t know yet and so must take whatever action we can to mitigate the harm.

The most common question songbird lovers ask is what they can do to help. That answer at least is clear: If you have not already, take down any feeders and birdbaths, the Game Commission and experts advise. Songbirds congregate at the feeders and water sources we provide. If a disease is causing their deaths, removing the feeders could help slow its spread from bird to bird. This strategy in the past helped reduce the incidents of the house finch eye disease, for example.

Experts also recommend Pennsylvanians scrub their idled bird feeder tubes, hoppers, trays and more with a 10% bleach solution before storing them away to ensure that if there is a contagion on them, it will be eliminated.

Since we don’t know what the illness is yet, it is best not to let pets come into contact with a dead or infected bird. And if you find a diseased bird or carcass, handle it with gloves. The Game Commission asks that suspected cases be reported online to the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine at https://bit.ly/36QalYb.

This situation is a cruel blow to the birds, which already contend with habitat loss, pollution and predation, especially by feral and outdoor house cats. And it is tough on the many people who delight in the company of birds: their songs, their antics, their plumage and the epic, extraordinary migrations that bring them to roost in our backyards. What is not to like?

But in this relationship, especially in summer, it is important to remember we need them more than they need us. There is ample food this time of year to sustain them beyond our stocks of black oil sunflower, safflower and nyjer seeds, mealworms and nutty suet cakes.

We credit the Game Commission and researchers for their swift response to this alarming outbreak and hope answers are forthcoming soon.

In the meantime, rather than mourn, bird fans might eye this as an opportunity for positive action. Cultivate more native plants for birds to dine on or keep birding organizations and wildlife rescue operations top of mind for support. They are instrumental in this fight, too.

And remember, we always have the option to view birds on their own terms – not from our windows or back decks, but in their environs. Download an app or grab a guidebook, sling a pair of binoculars around your neck and take a stroll. You might be encouraged and delighted by what you find.

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