With deadly mystery illness spreading, should Minnesotans take down bird feeders?

The unexplained ailment has resulted in bird die-offs in the eastern U.S.
A healthy blue jay at a feeder.

A healthy blue jay at a feeder.

Even hundreds of miles away in Minnesota, the mystery illness behind significant, unexplained bird die-offs in eastern and mid-Atlantic states is causing worry.

"Audubon Minnesota has been getting some calls from concerned citizens wondering about the situation locally and what they should do," Alexandra Wardwell, prairie project manager with Audubon Minnesota, told Bring Me The News.

The fatal illness, which causes swelling and crusting of the eyes, seizures and erratic behavior in affected birds, was first noticed in late May, federal wildlife officials have said, with the initial wave of deaths coming in Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Since then, it's been recorded in five additional states: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

Young common grackles, blue jays, European starlings and American robins have been most impacted, the agencies said, though there have been incidents involving other songbirds.

Researchers still don't know what is killing the birds. Common culprits (such as West Nile virus, avian influenza, salmonella or chlamydia) have been ruled out. They also don't know how it spreads, and haven't found any issues in domestic livestock or poultry, or humans.

A bird in Washington D.C. exhibiting symptoms of the illness.

A bird in Washington D.C. exhibiting symptoms of the illness.

In impacted states, local agencies have been directing people to take down bird feeders, in hopes of preventing further reach. Some local groups, even in states without a confirmed case, have been equally aggressive. That includes in Wisconsin, where the Madison Audubon Society recently recommended people remove all bird feeders "until this wildlife disease subsides," as a precaution.

So is it time for Minnesotans to do the same?

"At this point, there is no indication that Minnesotans need to take down well-maintained bird feeders," Wardwell said, noting the state's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would be the agency tasked with issuing such a recommendation.

As of July 20, there had been no confirmed cases of this mystery illness in Minnesota, a DNR spokesperson said, though the agency is monitoring developments out east. (The closest recorded cases have been in Indiana and Ohio.) Wardwell also said there have been no cases of widespread bird die-offs here. 

Whether it will come to Minnesota remains to be seen. Tami Vogel, communications director with the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota, called it "nearly impossible" to predict. She cited many "unknowns," including climate conditions needed for the illness to spread, whether the disease needs a host, and the source.

"We certainly hope conditions in Minnesota are not conducive to its spread," she said, noting the rehab center hasn't found a case here, but is keeping tabs on the situation.

Right now, backyard birders here should remain attentive to their winged visitors. The DNR said reporting a single dead bird generally isn't necessary. However, if someone finds five or more dead birds, or a sick and dying bird with "no obvious cause of illness," they should contact the DNR to report it.

Both the DNR and Audubon Minnesota also recommend thorough, regular cleaning of feeders and baths — as is always the case. Wardwell suggested white vinegar and water to clean out bird baths, and a "very diluted bleach solution, nine parts water to one part bleach," to kill pathogens in feeders. (You can find more information on safely cleaning feeders here.)

And of course, keep an eye on updates, Wardwell said, noting that "with any wildlife disease situation the recommendations and precautions can change."

"We appreciate the public’s help staying vigilant and keeping Minnesota birds safe," she added.

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