Indiana’s state ornithologist said hundreds of songbirds across the state have been found sick or dead with a mysterious illness.
Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources is working alongside scientists and officials from federal and state agencies to identify the source of the illness causing neurological problems and eye discharge and swelling in several species of songbirds.
The illness, which has primarily affected blue jays, American robins, common grackles, European starlings and northern cardinals, now stretches across six states in the eastern part of the U.S.
Allisyn-Marie Gillet, Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ state ornithologist, said 285 birds have been reported in 53 Indiana counties, but they may be vastly undercounted. The real number may be much higher.
“When it comes to estimates, that is likely an underestimate of what's actually going on. So, I would say in the hundreds would be the number of birds that are actually affected,” said Gillet. “That includes birds that are submitted to wildlife rehabilitators and birds that are taken off the landscape through predators through scavengers. Those are the birds that we can't actually find. So, I would say it's definitely more in the hundreds, perhaps 1,000.”
Gillet said the highest concentrations of birds were reported in Monroe, Marion, Clark, Allen, Kosciusko and Hamilton counties.
DNR is currently awaiting final laboratory results for 12 bird samples from Monroe County sent to the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostics Laboratory at Purdue University.
So far, the samples have tested negative for avian influenza and West Nile virus.
Gillet said getting the lab results could take a while.
“I like to compare it to trying to find an unknown object in a haystack. I want to say a needle in a haystack, but we don't even know what that needle looks like. So, we are trying our best to figure out what exactly are causing these symptoms and trying to rule things out as we continue to do tests. But, again, those tests take a long time. And, really, I think the best way of just dealing with it is just trying to prevent transmission,” Gillet said.
DNR has recommended Hoosiers take down their bird baths and birdfeeders, including hummingbird feeders, and stop broadcast feeding practices, like tossing a piece of bread, that target groups of birds.
“The whole reason for this is because we want birds to be able to socially distance naturally. When there are feeders, they're immediately attracted to them. They don't have that knowhow that that's not okay for them when there is a disease going around. So, we need to better impose that on them so that they can naturally socially distance and feed on other things instead of the birdseed and the nectar,” Gillet said.
Gillet said removing birdfeeders would not impact populations of wild birds because there are abundant food resources like insects, berries, nectar and seeds.
Gillet also said that rumors spreading on social media that Brood X cicadas could be the cause of the illness were not based on fact. At least not yet.
The rumor was fueled by a June 28 post by Brian Evans, ornithologist for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., who posited that birds could be succumbing to low levels of toxins from eating the hundreds of thousands of cicadas coming out for this year’s emergence cycle.
Gillet said there is no evidence yet to back up Evans’ hypothesis.
“Birds do eat cicadas. They definitely love to eat them when they are abundant. However, we haven't had any direct link between the cicadas and the cause so far. I know that there are some ideas out there that have been perhaps pointing that they might be the cause. But there is no direct link. Our labs have not determined that as a cause. So regarding the report from Smithsonian, there is no connection. Again, there is no connection,” she said.
The agency said Hoosiers should report dead birds found on their property to DNR’s wildlife reporting tool.
People should avoid handling dead birds unless they are wearing disposable gloves. The bird should be placed in a sealable plastic bag and disposed of with household trash while being kept away from pets.