Vet Voices

Are the mysterious bird deaths in West Virginia a cause for concern?

West Virginia Headlines

Some are wondering if the 17-year cicadas have something to do with it

West Virginia, W.Va. (WTRF)– Birds across the region are dying from… something. 

You’ve probably heard the warnings to take down the birdfeeders. Virginia, Maryland and the D.C. metro area started to see strange cases around the end of May.  

The West Virginia DNR says we’re seeing very low numbers of bird deaths at this point. But, what exactly is it that’s killing our birds? 

In the east, at Berkley and Jefferson counties, birds have been dying since the start of June.

They have swollen, crusty eyes, blindness, head tilts, and one more thing…

They’ve all been juvenile birds which is interesting. That tracks with what other states are seeing. Blue jays, common grackles, and starlings are pretty frequently reported. 

Ethan Barton, Wildlife Disease Specialist for WV DNR

Young birds who do not have fully developed immune systems. For this reason, the DNR has a hunch it’s not viral. But something else has come up this summer, something that only happens every 17 years, that the young birds could be snacking on. 

“One hypothesis that’s been thrown out there is these cicadas spend 17 years of their life underground. So, is there a potentiality of them picking up pesticides, herbicides, lawn chemicals, things like that. We are still awaiting toxicology results back.” 

Ethan Barton, Wildlife Disease Specialist for WV DNR

And while the deaths are widespread, Ethan says his department has collected and submitted four dead birds, which is not large-scale mortality.  

This, however, is a chance for birds (and birders) to practice good hygiene. Bird feeders are bringing all kinds of species together, and with that, higher potential for disease.  These strange deaths are a reminder that feeders should be taken down every 10 to 14 days; seed emptied out and washed in hot soapy water and then sterilized in a 10 percent bleach solution. 

“Very few people in general do that and most people who feed birds are like… ‘No, I’ve never cleaned a birdfeeder in my life’.” 

While hummingbirds are not impacted by the mysterious deaths, it is also recommended to give a good cleaning to your hummingbird feeder every three days.

The West Virginia DNR has sent their dead birds to wildlife pathological labs for answers. The Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Georgia and University of Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Futures Program are gathering that data.

The disease specialist says hopefully this week they will have answers to what’s causing these mysterious bird deaths but for now, do not be alarmed.

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