COVID-19 wasn’t the only epidemic this year. An unrelated disease caused the deaths of many songbirds, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, with some of them as far south as Florida.
The outbreak began in May 2020 and affected mostly larger songbirds, such as robins and blue jays.
Symptoms included swollen, crusty eyes and inability to maintain balance.
Several bacterial and viral diseases were ruled out, including West Nile virus, avian influenza, coronaviruses, even unfounded speculation of a disease transmitted by cicadas.
Other birds that showed up sick or dying were affected by avian conjunctivitis and salmonella poisoning. Conjunctivitis symptoms are similar to those found in larger songbird — swollen, weepy eyes — but this disease is most often seen in gregarious birds such as house finches and goldfinches — birds that commonly feed shoulder to shoulder at bird feeders, thus making transmission of disease easy by direct contact.
Because so many birds were dying in such a broad area, people were advised to take bird feeders and baths out of commission until the issue was resolved or was determined that it wasn’t spread by close contact.
I dutifully stopped providing seeds to my birds but left an empty feeder in place.
Unfortunately, the birds had not read the newspaper. They didn’t understand why I had stopped providing food for them. One bird in particular perched on the feeder just outside my window hurling chickadee obscenities at me. It was very clear what the bird was communicating. The feeder needed re-filling, and I’d better hop to it!
But I persevered, leaving feeders empty, knowing it was best for them, even though it was heartbreaking for me. After a while, the birds stopped coming to my window expecting a meal.
This went on for months, and I really missed my bird friends. Through the summer months, I didn’t worry that the birds would go hungry. Many birds feed their babies caterpillar and soft-bodied insects and in fact switch to that diet themselves in the warmer months when these foods are in abundance.
Meanwhile, month after month, I tried my best to answer readers who wanted to know when it would be safe to resume feeding birds. But I really didn’t have any answers. Field biologists were trying hard to determine what was causing the deaths and it was difficult to predict when it would subside.
Finally, in mid-August, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources declared the epidemic over.
On Sept. 10, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission followed suit.
Although a definitive diagnosis for this disease has not yet been determined, it appears that the numbers of birds suffering from these symptoms are declining.
Regardless of known disease outbreaks, it’s always best to maintain good sanitation with feeders. Feeders and bird baths should be given a good cleaning by scrubbing them with soap and water, soaking them in a dilute bleach solution for a few minutes, then letting them dry. Although hummingbirds are gone for the winter months, keep these recommendations in mind for next spring when they return. The same cleaning methods work for hummingbird feeders.
Once the all-clear was announced by the NC resources Commission, I cleaned my feeders, filled them with seeds, and put them back in operation. And I’m pleased to report that the chickadees have stopped swearing at me.
There are some excellent battery-powered tools available now. Leaf-blowers, string-trimmers, lawnmowers, even chainsaws powered by rechargeable batteries are available now and they do the job effectively while creating far less noise pollution and air pollution.
So, do something to good for Mother Nature: Combat climate change by trading in those old polluting gas-powered tools for battery-powered lawn tools.
If you have a birding question or story idea, write to Bird’s-Eye View in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, N.C. 27101, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please type “birds” in the subject line.