Mysterious illness impacting birds


It is not unusual for me to receive frequent bulletins from Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry’s Region 5 Urban Forester Wendi Van Buren. In fact, I usually receive at least one each week. Given her responsibilities in the 13 counties in southwestern Ohio that comprise Region 5, the bulletins almost always deal with some subject impacting some species of trees.

Those updates are always informative, but this past week’s bulletin especially caught my attention because the subject matter was not trees, but birds. Wendi’s bulletin included an update from The Ohio State University, further detailing the mysterious illness that is impacting some of our common species of birds. While this illness has not yet been reported in Shelby County, it has spread to Ohio, and has been reported as near as Miami County.

As early as April 11, the first reports of the illness were reported in Washington, D.C. City Wildlife, an organization established there to provide wildlife rescue and rehabilitation in our Nation’s Capital, received just one bird suffering from the illness.

However, since then, City Wildlife has seen a significant influx of young birds, mostly Common Grackles, European Starlings, House Sparrows, Blue Jays, and American Robins with eye issues leading to blindness and neurological problems affecting the birds’ balance and coordination.

According to the Ohio State University update, there have been reports of sick and dying birds not only in Ohio, but in nearby states including Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky. The affected birds often have swollen eyes, discharge from their eyes that may appear crusted, or a lack of clarity to their eyes.

Affected birds may also exhibit neurological signs (i.e., their head may hang to one side then flop to the other side.)

The cause of the bird deaths and/or symptoms remains unknown. Currently, no reports exist of other animals being impacted by this illness or its symptoms.

Connections to pesticide exposure, the recent cicada emergence, and a possible viral illness are being explored. Laboratories, including the United States Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, are currently accepting and analyzing samples to learn more about the illness and to determine the cause. Thus far, the various species have tested negative for both the bird flu and the West Nile Virus. Tests for other diseases are ongoing.

You can help! Since the cause of the illness is still unknown, specimen submission is critical. Please contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitator if you find a sick bird (our nearest is the Brukner Nature Center near Troy). To track the spread of the disease, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife is accepting reports of dead birds through their online reporting system ( Choose ‘Bird – Diseased/Dead’ in the ‘Species’ drop-down menu.

It is recommended that you avoid touching sick or dead birds by wearing disposable gloves and taking other precautions. The United States Geological Survey recommends disposing of dead birds in a sealable plastic bag with other household trash.

The National Wildlife Health Center recommends temporarily removing bird feeders and bird baths for a period of at least ten days to prevent the potential congregation of infected and non-infected birds. Clean both bird feeders and bird baths with a 10% household bleach solution (9 parts water:1 part bleach) and remove any spilled and potentially contaminated feed from under the feeder.

Clean the feeders, bird baths, and any items contaminated with bird droppings in an outdoor space or in another area of your home that is not used for food preparation or bathing. Some avian pathogens, such as Salmonella, can cause sickness in people. Cleaning your bird feeders and bird baths with that in mind is very important.

Don’t be worried that the birds will not have a source of food or water. They are both hardy and resourceful. During the summer months, plants are producing nectar, seeds, fruits, and attracting insects, all of which serve as food for birds.

Remember also that birds have the ability of flight, allowing them to travel further distances if needed to find both food and water. Right now, it’s important to keep the safety of the birds as a priority and take a break from feeders and baths until more is known about this outbreak.

The only good news – there is no evidence that whatever this illness that it has been transmitted to any other species. That said, take the recommended precautions until we know more. And if you allow your cats to roam outdoors (something I’ve continued to recommend against), make certain that they are not eating any of the potentially diseased birds.

By Mike Barhorst

Contributing columnist

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.

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