When the Birds Began to Die

When migratory bird ecologist Brian Evans first started hearing about dead birds across Washington, D.C., in mid-May, he “wrote it off,” says Evans, who’s on staff at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center.

The District of Columbia and at least 12 states on the East Coast, from Connecticut to Florida to Tennessee, are in the midst of a songbird epidemic. Thousands of young birds, including blue jays, common grackles, American robins, and European starlings, have suddenly gone blind, oozing from their eyes, shaking, and dying. Lab tests have ruled out some possible causes such as West Nile virus and avian influenza, What we know about the mystery bird death crisis on the East Coast (nationalgeographic.com) leaving scientists struggling to come up with new hypotheses. 


“This event is remarkable,” ornithologist Evans says. “What makes it significant is the number of birds that have been ill or have died and the number of species that have been impacted.” Cases have also emerged in Carolina wrens, gray catbirds, cardinals, house finches, sparrows, and others. “One American crow was just standing in the street,” near his house in May, Evans says. “It was very unusual. It died as I was preparing to take it to City Wildlife.”

House Finch

On July 2, the U.S. Geological Survey, which is working with wildlife agencies in the affected states, announced that “no definitive cause(s) of illness or death have been determined at this time.” Testing of dead birds from multiple states has ruled out common bacteria such as salmonella and chlamydia, and viruses such as avian influenza, West Nile virus, various herpes viruses, and a host of others. There have been no reported cases of any transmission to humans, farmed birds, other animals or family pets, though Curson emphasized that cats and dogs should be kept away from bird carcasses as a precaution, and that humans handling dead birds should wear gloves and wash their hands after contact.

 “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage.” William Blake.
American Robin

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Source: The Atlantic and National Geographic