Backyard birders are being told to take down feeders and baths as state wildlife experts investigate an unknown illness sickening and killing songbirds in 27 Pennsylvania counties.
That includes Lancaster County, where six dead birds had been reported as of Friday morning, said Julie Ellis, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Futures Program.
Specifically, three dead birds were found in Lancaster City, and individual dead birds were found in Landisville, Lititz and Pequea, she said.
It’s believed that this illness is wholly new, Ellis said, explaining multiple labs have been testing the birds for toxins, parasites and infectious bacteria and viruses.
“As of yet, no one has identified a definitive cause,” said Ellis, who’s also an adjunct associate professor and senior research investigator at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
“This event is different from previous large-scale events we’ve seen in songbirds because it appears to be moving quickly across the landscape and is mainly affecting young birds,” she said. “We don't yet understand what is contributing to its spread”"
By Thursday, Pennsylvania residents had made more than 70 reports about the sick and dying young and adult birds, according to state Game Commission officials, who are investigating alongside researchers with the Wildlife Futures Program.
Birds sick with the illness were first discovered near Washington D.C. and now have been identified in nine states — Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
“Because of the geographic extent of the event, we are working with a coordinated network of veterinary diagnostic laboratories,” Ellis said.
Warnings about the illness began circulating among wildlife rehabilitators in May, said Tracie Young, director and rehabilitator at Raven Ridge Wildlife Center in Washington Boro.
Those communications highlighted the birds’ symptoms, which include discharging and crusty eyes, eye lesions and neurological issues like head tremors and falling over, she said.
Then, about two weeks ago, Young got a call from someone in the Elizabethtown area who reported finding a sick blue jay.
“She said, ‘I think there is something wrong with the blue jay’s eyes,’” Young said. That call is when she learned the mysterious illness arrived in Lancaster County. “I knew right away. ... It’s really sad,” she said.
Since then, Young said new intake protocols have been implemented at Raven Ridge to help guard other animals at the facility. She encouraged members of the public to take similar precautions.
“If they find a dead bird or sick bird, they should keep their pets and children away from them,” Young said, adding not much is known about the illness, including whether it can spread to humans.
Bird-to-human transmission, while possible, is rare, said David Bowne, an associate biology professor at Elizabethtown College.
With that said, Bowne noted the illness’s apparent ability to spread easily among songbirds of different species and families.
So far, game officials said, the illness has impacted at least a dozen species, including blue jays, European starlings, common grackles, American robins, northern cardinals, house finches, house sparrows, eastern bluebirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees and Carolina wrens.
“They are all common backyard birds,” Bowne said, explaining that’s likely why so many people are noticing and reporting it. “I think it’s mostly being noticed because they come to people’s bird feeders.”
Gathering areas like feeders also could contribute to the illnesses’ spread, Bowne guessed, urging locals to follow related guidance from wildlife experts.
Ted Nichols II, first vice president of the Lancaster County Bird Club, urged the same.
“The Lancaster County Bird Club takes very seriously any threats to our native birdlife … and recommends that the public and those that feed birds heed the advice of wildlife authorities and experts,” he said.
According to the Game Commission, 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 should be kept away from sick and dead birds; and dead birds should be placed in sealable plastic bags before being thrown into the trash.
Sick and dead birds can be reported to wildlife experts online through the Wildlife Futures Program website (click on the “research” tab to find the reporting form).