A mysterious illness has been sickening and killing thousands of songbirds in Eastern states. You can help by taking precautions in your yard.

By Lynn Coulter
July 21, 2021
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Millions of us enjoy backyard birding by setting out seed-filled feeders, which attract fascinating songbirds such as bright red cardinals, chickadees, finches, and nuthatches. Add a bird bath and bluebirds, robins, warblers, and many other songbirds will stop by to sip or splash around. But this spring, a mysterious illness began afflicting thousands of wild birds across several Eastern states and has been spreading quickly. As scientists scramble to figure out what's going on, they are asking people to take down feeders to reduce places where birds may congregate and spread the disease. Plus, there are several other precautions you can take to help keep birds healthy.

bluejay on bird feeder
Credit: blightylad-infocus/Getty Images

Affected Bird Species and Disease Symptoms

Fledgling blue jays, American robins, common grackles, and European starlings seem to be the hardest hit by the new illness, but it's also striking adult birds and a few other bird species. Symptoms include crusty, weeping, closed, or swollen eyes, as well as lethargy, twitching, and other neurological conditions.

So far, cases of the new bird illness have been confirmed in several Eastern states and the District of Columbia, including Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Florida. No problems have been reported in humans, pets, domestic livestock animals, or poultry.

State and federal agencies around the country are investigating possible causes, says Todd Schneider, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. To date, they've ruled out avian flu and West Nile virus, which is good news because these viruses can jump to humans. Other common viruses, parasites, and toxins that affect birds also don't appear to be the culprit either. Researchers also looked for a connection to the recent eruption of the 17-year cicadas, but they haven't found one.

What You Can Do to Help Birds

Some states, including a few without confirmed cases to date, recommend temporarily taking down your feeders, in case that's where the disease is being transmitted. Don't worry about birds going hungry without your feeders during the warmer months, says Schneider, because plenty of natural food is available for them. So far, removing your feeder is just a precaution, because "the illness has been seen in some species that don't use or seldom use feeders, like robins and blue jays," he adds. Schneider recommends the following standard precautions:

  • If you keep your feeder up, it's good practice to keep it clean. Wear protective gloves and scrub it once a week with a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach mixed with nine parts water). Rinse thoroughly with water and allow it to air-dry.
  • If you have several feeders or baths, space them out so birds won't gather in one place. Congregating birds can transmit diseases to one another.
  • At least twice a week, rake up any bird droppings, spilled seeds, or hulls from underneath the feeders; bag them up and trash them. If it rains, rake as soon as you can before mold starts to grow.
  • Empty bird baths every couple of days, and clean them using 10% diluted bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly and air-dry before refilling. When you finish, throw your gloves in the trash, and wash your hands with soap and water.

What to Do If You Find a Sick or Dead Bird

Because birds can carry several diseases, it's important to know how to safely deal with any unhealthy or dead bird you may find. Plus, you can help wildlife agencies track the spread of diseases by reporting the incident. Use this list from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find contact information for your local agency.

  • Avoid handling wild birds, living or dead, and never with bare hands.
  • If it's necessary to remove a dead bird from your yard, wear disposable gloves or cover your hand in a plastic bag to pick it up, then double-bag it in sealed plastic bags and put it in your trash.
  • Keep pets and small children away from sick or dead wild birds.

Despite what's happening, don't panic, Schneider says. "There's no sign this will move to humans or non-birds. There are some really smart people working on this, and they'll figure it out."

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