Take apart your bird feeders, songbirds die of mysterious disease

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If you are like me, you have a bird friendly yard. For those of you who don’t know my wife, believe me when I say that to put it mildly.

Our family made a focused effort to make the birds feel at home around us. Specialty houses, a diverse and seasonal rotation of bird food, a few bird bath options, and a focus on native flora are all steps we have taken to ensure an area for avian housing.

Our backyard is a common space where birds can socialize, share a meal, fight over that meal, and ultimately spread a neurological disease that causes their eyelids to swell.

For more than a month now, the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) in various states has been tracking an increase in the number of songbird deaths, all showing similar swollen eyes, crusty discharge and neurological disease. It was first noticed in Ohio and DC, but similar occurrences have appeared in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and other southern states, and recently in Indiana. That’s right, it’s on the doorstep of Illinois.

As sad as it may be to have songbirds dying from a mysterious disease, please note that it also makes them blind. One of the symptoms noted is erratic flight as these flying feather balls with a mouth spear cannot see. Collisions with windows, not to mention birds flying against people, are a very real risk.

Also note that predatory birds or birds of prey often feed on the smaller songbirds. If their food source disappears, birds of prey will follow. 12 prominently reported species so far, including blue jay, starling, American robin, red cardinal, house finch, house sparrow, eastern blue robin and woodpecker red-bellied.

This disease is new enough that the cause is still uncertain. Some have suggested it had something to do with the cicada swarm this year and 17 years of bioaccumulative pesticides, but that’s pure speculation at this point.

There is a lot about this disease that we still don’t know. We’re pretty sure humans can’t get it, but the DNR recommends not touching or letting pets touch downed birds you see just in case. Contact the DNR and they will take care of it. Scientists are pretty sure how it spreads so quickly.

Bird friendly backyards, like many of us, invite birds to come closer and share food and water. As we have all discovered in the past 18 months, if a contagious disease is circulating, getting together nearby, especially to share a meal or a drink, is a bad idea. Our backyards create super bird spreader events.

Here’s what the DNR recommends we do to make sure it stops in Illinois. First, take down any feeders and birdbaths you have available. Empty the contents; we have to assume that it is contaminated. Clean your feeders and birdbaths with a 10% bleach solution. Ideally, keep them for a while. If the birds have no room to congregate, they have no room to spread disease. If you insist on putting them back, (don’t) put some food in, throw them out and clean them every night.

This is not the migration season for songbirds, so there is a real opportunity to stop this disease while it is slow. The DNR is on the case and is issuing reports. As I often recommend, you can also contact the local chapter of the Audubon company. They are really smart and really nice people. It will be sad not to see as many birds in my garden as usual, but it would be worse if I never saw them again.


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