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Mysterious Bird Deaths and How We Can Help

By July 30, 2021No Comments
Screenshot of Audubon's report on the songbird epidemic. Image shows a gloved hand holding a small bird with its eye crusted shut and the headline "Scientists Still Searching for the Pathogen Behind the East's Songbird Epidemic."
Screenshot of Audubon’s report on the songbird epidemic.

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Many photographers have backyard bird feeders and enjoy photographing their avian visitors. Beginning in May, though, wildlife managers in a number of mid-Atlantic states, from New Jersey through Florida and as far west as Indiana, began seeing sick and dying birds. Audubon, Science and a number of other media outlets have reported that the distressed birds had swollen, crusty eyes and some neurological symptoms. Because birds are at increased risk of transmitting diseases when congregating at feeders, authorities in the eleven affected states (NJ, DE, PA, KY, WV, MD, VA, IN, OH, TN, FL) and the District of Columbia are recommending that people stop feeding birds altogether. And, if you are in or around the affected states and encounter sick or dead birds, wildlife managers urge you to contact your state or district wildlife conservation agency for instructions and to help them track this outbreak.

Initially, most of the affected birds had been from common, numerous species, such as European starlings and American robins. However, there have been a number of more recent reports of substantial numbers of songbirds being affected. As of now, there are no reports of people or domestic livestock being impacted.

Labs at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, the University of Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program, Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Purdue University, and University of Georgia Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study are collaborating with the National Park Service and the various state wildlife managers to investigate the cause and potential cures for the strange illness. While a number of possible causes have been ruled out, scientists have not zeroed in on any likely culprits.

Last fall hundreds of birds mysteriously died in New Mexico. Some speculated that climate change or western wildfires might have been factors, but no definitive cause was established. It is not clear if there is any connection to the bird deaths in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest.

Meanwhile, a salmonella outbreak in California and seven other states has been linked to bird feeders. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is urging people to remove feeders and let birds feed on the native seeds they would otherwise be eating.

Update: Out of abundance of caution, a number of states that have not yet been affected are recommending that bird feeders be taken down. Among these are Massachusetts, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and others. Some states, such as Montana, Missouri, and Maine have not gone as far as recommending bird feeders be removed but are urging caution and the best practices listed below. This is a fluid situation and recommendations may change as new information becomes available.


Even if you don’t live in the affected region, wildlife managers recommend following these best practices:

  • Clean feeders and bird baths regularly with a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach mixed with nine parts water), rinse with water, and allow to air-dry.
  • Keep pets (including pet birds) away from sick or dead wild birds as a standard precaution.
  • Avoid handling birds unless necessary. If you must handle them, wear disposable gloves.
  • If you must pick up a dead bird, place an inverted plastic bag over your hand to avoid direct contact with the bird. Dispose of dead birds carefully. Place them in a plastic bag, seal, and discard with household trash or bury them deeply.

Many people have back yard bird feeders and enjoy the visits of our feathered friends. But now they need our help. If you’re in one of the affected states, give that feeder a good cleaning and then put it away, at least for now. If you’re outside of the affected areas, take care to follow good feeder hygiene and follow the recommendations of your local wildlife agency or Audubon.

The good news is that experts don’t expect this mysterious disease to have a long-term impact on bird numbers, and there are signs that the outbreak is already waning, but anything we can do in our own backyards will help.