Mystery bird disease is going away

The cases of bird disease with an unknown origin are decreasing.

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A mama bird feeding her babies in a birdhouse. — Martha's Vineyard Times

The mysterious bird disease that caused “eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs” that was circulating in multiple states and Washington, DC, appears to be going away. In July, the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife posted an advisory cautioning people against putting out bird feeders or baths to minimize the number of areas birds can congregate and possibly spread the disease. The disease never reached Massachusetts, but it got quite close when it arrived in Connecticut

According to the Washington Post, the number of reported dead birds is decreasing in states south of Massachusetts who dealt with the brunt of the mystery disease. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, whose state was one of the first to experience the disease, has allowed people to put out bird feeders and baths under the condition that guidelines are followed. These include weekly cleaning of bird feeders and baths alongside wearing disposable gloves or something similar when handling them. 

The cause of the mystery disease is unknown so far. A few hypotheses for the mystery disease’s cause have been put forth, such as the birds’ consumption of cicadas.

Although the Massachusetts DFW has not given an update about the disease yet, the conservation organization Mass Audubon announced that it should be safe to put back out bird feeders and baths.

“We felt, given the number of environmental NGOs and government agencies in states south of us rescinding their ‘do not feed’ advisories, we were comfortable in joining them,” Joan Walsh, chair of ornithology at Mass Audubon, told The Times. Walsh said that Mass Audubon had been in communication with DFW before making their decision. She believes it is probably administrative reasons causing the delay in DFW’s advisory update. According to Walsh, states have been announcing their information individually as there has not been a lot of federal guidance. 

“Since the new disease hasn’t emerged in Massachusetts after weeks of vigilance, people should probably feel comfortable following the Mass Audubon recommendation that resuming bird-feeding is now fairly safe,” Matt Pelikan, a Martha’s Vineyard naturalist, wrote in an e-mail. Pelikan pointed out that a bird feeder is a “human intervention” that, while a good way to observe birds up close, can alter birds’ behaviors. If the feeders are not kept clean, the emergence or spread of disease is a prevalent risk. 

“People should feel a sense of responsibility if they feed birds,” said Pelikan. “Keeping feeders clean is one important health measure.” Pelikan also suggested planting many native or near-native plants that bear seeds and fruits to attract birds to the yards. Pelikan uses this method to observe birds, planting blueberries, sunflowers, bluestem grass, and other types of native and near-native plants. 

Walsh assured that there is no harm in people waiting until the DFW advisory update to make their decision. “Thank you everyone for heeding the word,” said Walsh.