Woodpecker

File photo

This pileated woodpecker enjoys a feast from a bird feeder. Cases of dying birds have been identified in 69 counties including Benton, Cass, Jasper, Pulaski, Carroll, Tippecanoe and White.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is asking all Hoosiers to remove bird feeders and baths until advised otherwise.

This instruction follows 280 reports of songbirds — including cardinals, robins, starlings, brown-headed cowbirds, red-headed woodpeckers, house finchs, wrens, grackles and blue jays — becoming ill and dying after contracting an unknown illness.

Chickens, ducks, and turkeys are not on the list, but the Indiana State Board of Animal Health encourages Hoosiers to protect their poultry from exposure. This includes keeping poultry in a fenced space or coop, feeding poultry inside and cleaning and sanitizing feed pans. 

Sick birds have been reported in 69 counties including Benton, Carroll, Cass, Pulaski, Jasper, Tippecanoe, Hamilton, Marion and White counties. Twenty-three more counties have been identified since July 28.

Reports have also been made in nearby states such as Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.

The sick birds — first identified in late May in Monroe County — showed neurological signs of illness, eye swelling and crusty discharge. Neurological signs include disorientation, tremors, uncontrollable limbs, and "heavy head"— a struggle to hold their head up.

The DNR is working with the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center to track and identify the illness. Federal agencies and nonprofits such as the Smithsonian are also involved due to the phenomenon's scope.

Despite presumptions, Allisyn Gillet — state ornithologist for Indiana DNR — stated the labs have not found a direct connection between the birds' illness and their cicada consumption.

Submitted bird samples tested for avian influenza and West Nile virus have tested negative.

Feeders and baths are suspected to be prime places for illnesses to spread between birds as they are heavily trafficked places for the species.

"The whole reason for this is because we want birds to be able to socially distance naturally," said Gillet. "When there are feeders, they are immediately attracted to them. They don't have that know-how to think that [congregating] is not okay when there is a disease going around."

Once removed, the DNR asked for bird feeders and baths to be cleaned with a 10% bleach solution and air dried.

The DNR said they do not expect the removal of feeders to impact wild bird populations.

“There are abundant food resources available to birds at this time of the year including insects, berries, nectar, and seeds. And birds will shift to those available food sources when feeding is stopped," said Gillet.

People have been advised to avoid handling and keeping pets away from the sick birds. If people need to handle the birds, gloves must be worn, placed in a sealed bag and discharged in the household trash once finished.

When asked if a phenomenon like this has happened before, Gillet said to her knowledge, she does not know of any other time where so many songbirds have died at once.

"I have not seen songbirds die in such large numbers before. Before my time—I have been working here for 5 years—there was the West Nile virus that occurred in the late 90s and that hit the eastern U.S. causing a lot of specific birds to die, mainly crows and jays," said Gillet.

Going forward, the labs can't determine if this disease will greatly impact the ecosystem as a whole because wild birds naturally experience illnesses already.

Any sick or dead birds are to be reported at on.IN.gov/sickwildlife.

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