Mysterious Illness Blinding and Killing Birds in Mid-Atlantic States

People are being asked to empty and clean feeders.

bird in the Washington, D.C., area with swollen eyes and crusty discharge
A bird found in the Washington, D.C., area with swollen eyes and discharge.

Leslie Frattaroli / National Park Service

Wildlife officials in several states are warning of a mysterious bird illness that affects the animals’ eyes and can lead to death. Homeowners are being asked to stop feeding birds until researchers can determine what is causing the outbreak.

Wildlife managers aren’t certain what is causing the illness, according to a statement by the United State Geological Survey (USGS). Officials in Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia began receiving reports of sick birds in late May. There have also been a few birds spotted in nearby states.

Specifically, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, “Sick birds have been reported throughout northern and northwestern Virginia, southern Maryland, northeastern West Virginia, and in the District of Columbia. Sporadic reports have been received from neighboring states but the vast majority of reports have been received from DC, MD, and VA.”

Symptoms include swollen eyes and crusty discharge, as well as balance problems that suggest neurological issues.

The departments of natural resources in those areas are working with other agencies to investigate the cause of the illness and die-off.

Megan Kirchgessner, a veterinarian with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, tells the Washington Post that there have been at least 325 reports of sick or dying birds.

The majority of birds identified have been fledgling grackles and blue jays, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

The department says tissue samples have been submitted for mycoplasma testing and results are pending. There are many types of mycoplasma bacteria known to affect birds. The most serious is mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG) which has been known to affect poultry and wild turkeys and cause conjunctivitis in house finches.

On social media, people have suggested many theories. Many people point out that the timing is curiously tied to the advent of the cicadas. Some wonder if cicadas have been sprayed with insecticide which the birds ingest when they get the insects. Others worry that the cicadas are carrying some sort of disease themselves.

Cleaning and Emptying Feeders

Because birds can transmit diseases to each other when they are gathered around a feeder or a bath, officials are asking people in affected areas to stop feeding birds until a cause for the illness has been discovered.

In addition, they’ve suggested that people clean bird feeders and bird baths with a solution of 10% bleach and water. As a precaution, they are also asking pet owners to keep pets away from sick or dead birds.

Although there’s no evidence that the disease is transmissible to humans, officials are advising people to avoid handling the birds. But if you must remove dead birds, wear disposable gloves and place them in a sealable plastic bag in the household trash.

“The reports of sick and dying birds across the D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia areas are alarming and troubling," David Curson, director of bird conservation at Audubon Mid-Atlantic, tells Treehugger.

"While we aren’t yet certain of the potential cause of these reports, people should take steps to help prevent the possible spread of disease including holding off on feeding birds via birdfeeders, not handling sickened birds, keeping pets away and cleaning bird feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution. If you find sick or dead birds, we encourage you to report it to your state or District wildlife conservation agency: the District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and National Park Service, or West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.”

A commenter in Maryland posted online about his experience with the birds:

Frederick Maryland here. 2 dead birds in my yard. But was what was unusual is it looked like they were just laying there. I didn't want to get startled so I got a stick and touched them. Definitely dead. Both had screwy eyes but people here have said it could have been the inner eyelid? But any other dead bird I've ever found has had some sort of trauma or old or emaciated these birds were healthy looking. As I said I thought they were just sitting there.
View Article Sources
  1. "Interagency Statement: USGS and Partners Investigating DC Area Bird Mortality Event." United States Geological Survey, 2021.

  2. "Avian Mycoplasmosis." Northeast Wildlife Disease Cooperative.