Birds at our rehabilitation center have been dying from unexplained sickness. Symptoms include eye infections and neurological problems such as seizures and balance issues. We’ve seen birds before with eye infections or neurological problems before, but never this combination. Other rehabilitation centers in the area and local vets have all cited an increase in bird deaths from this unexplained sickness. 

We first saw this sickness last Sunday, when we unexpectedly received around 25 new birds. The combination of blindness and neurological problems signalled to us that this is something we have not seen before. We started trying to care for these birds but most of them got a lot worse or died right away. Birds typically do not die from just an eye infection, which was more evidence to us that this is something we haven’t seen before.  

The same thing happened the next day on Monday. Our rehabilitation center was scrambling to take care of these sick birds while many were dying, and we also discovered that the sickness is highly contagious. We separated and quarantined the sick birds from our healthy birds and used separate equipment for both.  We also contacted other local rehabilitation centers and vets to find out that they were all seeing the same thing happen.

Since we don’t know what this sickness is or how to treat it, we took two blue jays to our consulting vet, Currie Carothers at Stahl Exotic Animal Veterinary Services.  She advised us not to take in these sick birds because we know so little about the disease. The sickness mainly affects Blue Jays and Grackles, but at this point we do not know if it is bacterial or viral. State and local authorities have been notified about this sickness and tissue samples were sent in for testing, but at this point there are no results yet. 

A local couple, David and Martha, living in Arlington, have been tracking two fledgeling Blue Jays in their backyard, one with this sickness and one with a mild case, or possibly even healthy. (Many thanks to them for the photos in this post.) The parents of these birds took care of the both babies until the stronger one declared his independence and is now flying from tree to tree. The other one died during one of the heavy rains we had recently. But their mamma has a better track record than we do in taking care of her babies during this plague than we do, so unless you see a bird that is suffering, it may be best to leave it alone.

One theory is that pesticide spraying of cicadas, or possible contamination of local waterways, has caused this outbreak. In any case, this is a good reminder not to spray pesticides for any reason because a toxin that can kill a bug or a weed will also kill the animals that eat those insects or use the plants for nesting material. If you find a blind bird or one that is having seizures, contact animal control. When disposing of these birds wear gloves, use the “dog-poop” method of picking it up with an inside-out trash bag, double bag the body, and wash your hands thoroughly after use. 

Once we have released all the birds in our care who do not have the disease, we will reevaluate our policy of not accepting sick birds. In the meantime, here are links to other articles written about these bird deaths:

https://alexandrialivingmagazine.com/news/residents-report-an-increase-in-deceased-birds/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dead-birds-blind-arlington-dc/2021/05/26/8bac705c-be36-11eb-9c90-731aff7d9a0d_story.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/birds-blind-washington-dead-grackles-b1855180.html