Birds are dying in the United States and no one knows why | Sciences | In-depth science and technology report | DW


As humans and other animals continue to fight COVID-19, a new epidemic appears to have struck several species of birds in North America.

All over the United States people have found dead birds. The birds appear to have been hit by a wave of mysterious diseases since April.

Bird watchers (bird experts) say dead or sick aviators tend to have swollen eyes as well as neurological issues that seem to cause birds to lose their balance.

“It’s not uncommon to see birds with eye problems,” says Jim Monsma, director and founder of the City Wildlife animal rescue center in Washington, DC

Monsma has worked in urban animal protection and rehabilitation for 25 years, particularly in the DC area.

But it took some time for Monsma and her colleagues to realize that what they were seeing was “unusual”.

“At first we didn’t know we were dealing with an epidemic,” Monsma says.

Birds are dying in alarming numbers in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the United States

In search of the cause

They now believe that several species of birds have contracted a strange disease for about two months. And the disease has spread at least 965 kilometers (600 miles) from the capital, through parts of the Midwestern United States and into the state of Indiana.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) released a report on the mysterious bird deaths in early June. Details remain unclear, but experts are trying to trace the epidemic to its origins.

“The first one we saw was in April. In early June, that’s when we started sending birds to an animal center, where they were alarmed to hear our numbers at the time. Now we’re down to just under 200. are infected, ”Monsma says.

Still no diagnosis

Animal centers have examined the birds for a possible cause of death or illness, but testing has so far been inconclusive.

“West Nile [disease] is excluded. . . Everything has been excluded. To this day, we still don’t know, ”says Monsma, citing tests conducted by Wildlife Clinic Director Cheryl Chooljian.

The USGS is equally baffled by the outbreak.

“At this point, the USGS has no updates beyond the interagency statement,” said Marisa Lubeck, a spokeswoman for the department.

Birds on feeders hanging in a tree

One theory is that birds spread the mysterious disease to each other while hanging out in bird feeders

Theories of the disease

The experts still have their theories. And one of them links the disease to the arrival of the Brood-X cicadas which appeared in late April and early May – the same time people started to notice the dead birds.

It’s just a theory, but it’s something to work on, according to bird watchers. And further research is important because another bird flu could also prove to be very dangerous to humans.

“We are losing our bird population at an alarming rate,” says Monsma, including nestlings, European starlings, blue jays and others.

“About a third of species in America are declining rapidly. It is spreading to other species,” he says. “And we certainly can’t rule out the possibility that it could spread to humans.”

He says historically and currently “when you see an epidemic in animals, it’s a cause for concern. It’s something you don’t want to dismiss.”

Empty bird feeders in a box marked Free on a sidewalk

Some Washington, DC residents have already gotten rid of their bird feeders in an attempt to contain the disease

Do not feed the birds

There is some hope for the winged creatures – the number of sick birds reported to City Wildlife has declined over the past two weeks. To eliminate the spread of the disease among various species, Monsma says City Wildlife has notified DC, Maryland and Virginia to take precautions and remove bird feeders or baths. Some locals have already got rid of their feeders, while others have taken a different path and tied bird skeletons to them to ward off the birds that regularly come to visit them.

The United States Geological Survey advises to stop feeding the birds until the outbreak is over. If feeders and birdbaths are kept, they should be cleaned with a 10% bleach solution. Pets should be kept away from sick or dead birds.

But even with the number of infections declining, there is still no end in sight. Experts say the public can help by sticking to precautionary measures to contain the disease before it’s too late.