Bird Feeder Feb 23 2021

European starlings visit a bird feeder in Lancaster Township Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Lancaster County songbirds are likely still being infected by an unknown illness that’s been sickening and killing birds in more than a half dozen states, according to a local wildlife rehabilitator.

It’s an assessment that Tracie Young said she was confident to make, estimating that an average of 15 reports about the birds have been called into Raven Ridge Wildlife Center each day since game officials announced local cases of the illness earlier this month.

“It’s concerning to us,” said Young, director of the wildlife rehabilitation center in Washington Boro.

But, she could not say exactly how many locally reported sick birds have tested positive for the unknown illness.

“I don’t know how bad it is,” Young said.

Cases are being investigated by state Game Commission officials and experts with the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Wildlife Futures program.

On Thursday, PennVet spokesman Martin Hackett provided a brief update, explaining that researchers are no longer tallying the number of reported sick birds.

“We’ve received a significant number of those and we’re thrilled with the public’s response,” he said. “The investigation has now progressed and shifted to strictly lab diagnosis — running and refining a battery of tests to identify cause.”

Currently, the source of the illness is unknown, but officials said they have ruled out a number of causes, including salmonella, chlamydia, avian influenza virus, West Nile virus, Newcastle disease virus, herpesviruses, poxviruses, and trichomonas parasites.

Game Commission site

A state Game Commission spokesman said new information about the illness will be shared on the commission’s website as it becomes available.

As of Thursday afternoon, an online commission alert page hadn’t been updated since July 8, when it was revealed that Wildlife Futures had received more than 1,500 statewide reports about sick and dead birds.

Of those reports, 783 were made from within the commission’s southeastern region, which includes Lancaster County, according to the page. That’s several hundred more than in any of the commission’s other five regions, though reports have been made in every region.

It’s estimated that only 25 to 30 percent of those reports are actually tied to the seemingly new, unidentified illness, game officials said in that earlier update.

Multiple bird species exhibiting symptoms of the illness — discharging and crusty eyes, eye lesions and neurological issues like head tremors and instability — have also been reported outside of Pennsylvania, including in Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Birdwatchers discussing

All of that information is being closely watched and widely discussed among local backyard birdwatchers, according to Mary Hall, store manager at Wild Birds Unlimited in Manheim Township.

“We sell everything needed for backyard birding,” Hall said, adding that the illness has become a regular talking point with customers. “They are asking about it when they are coming in.”

That’s true, she said, due to recommendations from experts, including at the Game Commission, that backyard feeders and birdbaths should be taken down until a definitive cause of the illness is found. Experts have said they fear gathering points like feeders could serve as hubs of transmission.

Those running the store are skeptical, Hall said, and they've been giving their customers other instructions — simply telling them to thoroughly clean feeders, not to keep them down.

Hall said she feels a lot of the discussions around the illness have been alarmist, especially because she hasn’t personally spoken with anyone who has found a related sick or dead bird.

“We haven’t had any customers come in and say they found a dead bird, and we have a lot of customers,” Hall said. “None of them have found a dead bird that could be tied to this disease.”

Battling skepticism

That type of skepticism is troubling, said Young, who fears that disregarding recommended guidance could lead to increased transmission of the new illness, endangering native songbirds.

“Take the bird feeders down. The birds will find other food sources,” she said. “Just do this until we find out what’s going on. If you want to enjoy your native songbirds later, take precautions now.”

Experts recommend that birdbaths and feeders should be removed from yards and cleaned with a 10% bleach solution; dead or injured birds should be avoided or handled, only if necessary, with gloved hands; pets and children should be kept away from sick and dead birds; and dead birds should be placed in sealable plastic bags before being disposed of.

According to Game Commission officials, suspected sick birds should be reported to PennVet at www.vet.upenn.edu/research/centers-laboratories/research-initiatives/wildlife-futures-program/our-research/diseased-songbird-reporting-form.

In a pair of emails, Hackett, with PennVet, urged patience.

“I know all are anxious for more news,” he said. "Diagnostic tests are pending. Investigations of newly emerging wildlife diseases are always a challenge due to all the unknowns — and it takes time.”

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