WELLFLEET — Mass. Wildlife and Mass Audubon have recommended that residents take down their bird feeders in an attempt to prevent the spread of an unidentified illness that has been killing birds across the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern U.S.
According to a Mass. Div. of Fisheries and Wildlife advisory posted online, the most common sign of disease is swollen and crusty eyes. Neurological symptoms have also been reported, namely unsteadiness. Mass. Wildlife has opened a form online where people can submit sightings of sick or dead birds matching these descriptions.
Mark Faherty, science coordinator at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, said the mystery illness has not been identified anywhere in New England, and has been declining in other places. The New York Times reported earlier this month that in Washington, D.C., while 91 cases were reported in May, that number is now down to a handful per week.
Scientists have ruled out a variety of infections like avian flu and West Nile Virus, but while it appears to be a disease, they have not yet ruled out pesticides.
Faherty said finding the cause will likely take time. In the case of the Wellfleet Bay Virus that killed thousands of common eiders, which are large seabirds, starting in the late 1990s, it took scientists years to isolate the infection.
Meanwhile, Mike O’Connor, owner of Bird Watcher’s General Store in Orleans, said many customers are confused about what to do with their feeders. “They’re looking for direction,” he said.
Faherty said there has not yet been any concrete evidence implicating bird feeders in the spread of the illness.
Still, the smartest thing to do right now, he advised, is to simply forgo feeding birds. This time of year, he said, they’ll manage just fine. In his view, the benefit of bringing an “artificially high number” of birds together at a feeder simply does not outweigh the risks right now.
“It’s like we learned with Covid,” said Faherty. “Don’t crowd together with other people not wearing a mask. It’s social distancing for birds.”