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Our Statement on the Avian "Mystery Illness"

Many of us (especially those who feed and care about birds) have heard that there is an avian disease outbreak in the mid-Atlantic states. Some of the feeder birds most affected include Blue Jays, Common Grackles, and European Starlings, but non-feeder birds such as American Robins and Gray Catbirds have also shown symptoms. Scientists have struggled to determine the cause of this illness that results in crusty eyes, swollen faces, and neurological issues. At this point in time, there are more questions than answers.

It has been strongly recommended that people in the affected Mid-Atlantic region take down all their feeders. While this is prudent in areas where the disease has been confirmed, it seems too early for panic in unaffected areas, including here in Maine.

Like we saw in the early days of the COVID-19 Pandemic, a disease outbreak exposes many of our failures of proper hygiene and sanitation. With any bird disease outbreak, it becomes apparent that most folks are not properly cleaning their feeding stations to prevent the spread of any disease. Therefore, we should take this moment to be proactive and reduce the vectors for disease at all our feeders.

Basic steps that should be employed at all times include:

- Eliminate rotting shells and waste from below feeders. Cheap seed mixes with fillers our birds don’t eat further add to the pile that can harbor disease and bacteria. It doesn’t need to be spotless, but the fewer shells and other materials below your feeders, the less potential for disease to be spread, especially from feces.

- Regularly clean feeders to avoid build up of mold. Instead of always “topping off” a feeder, simply let the birds eat all the seed, rinse it, dry it, and then refill it.

- Use 1 part white vinegar to 4 parts water to kill mold and help clean the feeders. Always rinse thoroughly.

- Monitor feeders for signs of diseased birds and act accordingly (more below).

Additionally, due to the threat of a new disease (and likewise for outbreaks of other diseases that can occur in our region), we recommend the following steps be taken to be proactive:

- Clean feeders weekly with 1 part bleach to 10 parts water, which will kill viruses and bacteria.

- Eliminate tube feeders with sharp edges. The eye disease conjunctivitis can spread as birds stick their head into tube feeders and the crust around the eyes is scraped by sharp metal edges.

- Reduce the reliance on tube feeders by increasing “open feeding” styles such as platforms and hoppers.

- Be vigilant in watching for sick birds.

Unfortunately, the novel disease that is currently affecting birds in the Mid-Atlantic displays a range of symptoms that can be shown by uninfected birds, including insecticide and especially rodenticide poisoning, window strikes, feather mites, and weakness (especially in poor-performing fledglings). Therefore, we strongly advise against panic about the first report posted in some social media group. But the cluster of symptomatic birds in the Mid-Atlantic is not explained by any known issue or described disease.

If birds exhibit a wide range of the following symptoms, please contact us immediately, and take down your feeders and disinfect them. It is also important that you do not handle infected birds. Reported symptoms include: blindness, crusty eyes, sitting on the ground with shaky heads, lethargy or unresponsiveness.

While southbound (fall!) migration is underway and therefore the general flow of birdlife in Eastern North America is heading away from us, mechanisms such as vagrancy, post-breeding dispersal, and even transport of infected feeders could potentially spread this mystery illness. But we can see no need at this time for blanket statements such as “take down all of your feeders,” especially since there have not been any correlated cases anywhere near us. Sensationalizing the concern will only make it more complicated to get widespread compliance if we need to make such suggestions further down the road. Furthermore, it appears that the disease may be abating a bit as fewer birds are now being brought into rehabilitation centers. In the meantime, observant feeder-watchers are our front line of defense against the arrival of this, or any other avian disease.

If the time comes for that, we urge a very careful and conscientious announcement and reporting of the issue. Information and education about cleaning and localized feeder removal will go a lot further than blanket statements that will go mostly ignored, if they are heard at all. Furthermore, as we have seen in the COVID-19 Pandemic, promoting proper hygiene and personal protection is more effective at controlling disease than “do not do this” mandates. In fact, let’s use this as an opportunity to all be better bird feeding stewards to minimize the chances of disease spread at our feeders and maximize our chances and foster healthy backyard bird populations.

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