Mysterious disease is blinding, killing hundreds of birds in DC area

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Birds of the mid-Atlantic are disappearing at an alarming rate, says the U.S. Geological Survey, which is urging residents to refrain from feeding the animals until more is known about a mysterious disease that causes eye swelling, neurological damage and, ultimately, death.

In a recent joint statement by the USGS on behalf of a number of state agencies throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and DC, they warned that birds that congregate in feeders and baths are likely to transmit the illness, which has not yet been identified by wildlife experts. They ask residents to disinfect and remove such ornaments from their homes until the “mortality event” has ended and more is known about how the disease can be treated or prevented.

They’re also asking residents to contact their state or district wildlife conservation agency if they spot or come in contact with sick dead birds in the area, especially if they exhibit signs of eye inflammation and discharge, imbalance or seizures. While the illness does not appear to be transmissible to humans or other animal species, extreme hygienic precautions should be taken if handling one of these birds becomes necessary.

Those who do are also being directed to notify the USGS.

Megan Kirchgessner, a veterinarian with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, told the Washington Post the phenomenon is “significant” for how “widespread” it is. “And it’s continuing,” she added, as more than 325 reports of ailing birds have been collected so far by the agencies since they first identified the mysterious ailment in May.

Summer is primetime for birdwatching at your window, but Kirchgessner urges birders to leave them to their own devices this season.

“From a veterinary perspective, especially in the springtime when food is abundant, there’s no reason for those feeders to be out,” she told WaPo. “And to be perfectly honest, especially in a situation like this, they can do more harm than good.”

Severe side effects appear to be confined to two bird species, grackles and blue jays, and particularly to their young that are not fully able to fly and feed themselves.

“This is truly scary,” Jim Monsma, head organizer for DC’s City Wildlife, told DCist. “We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, as it were, yet. And it’s just every day more and more birds.”

Infected birds identified by the agency are being euthanized on the spot.

“At this point, we’re so inundated, we are just euthanizing because it’s a miserable condition for these birds,” Monsma told DCist. “Our role at this point is simply to spare them additional suffering and an inevitable death.”

Meanwhile, there’s been speculation by citizen scientists, the Charlotte Observer reported, that the affliction may be linked to Brood X cicadas, which awakened and emerged this spring after 17 years underground. Gackles and blue jays are known to eat the rare insects, which may become “fungus-infested” during their subterranean sleep. However, no scientists have so far supported this hypothesis.

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