The Wildlife Center of Virginia has received numerous calls and emails from the public with questions regarding the ongoing 2021 Avian Unusual Mortality Event, more commonly called “Mystery” or “Novel Bird Illness” by the media. This illness, first noted in late May 2021, primarily impacts Common Grackles, Blue Jays, European Starlings, and American Robins, but other species of affected songbirds have been reported. The Wildlife Center of Virginia is following the recommendations of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources and will continue to share those recommendations as the event continues.
What are the symptoms?
Affected birds often present with swelling and crusty discharge of their eyes, along with loss of vision and other neurological symptoms.
What is the affected area?
In Virginia, affected birds have been reported in Alexandria, Arlington, Clarke County, Fairfax, Falls Church, Fauquier County, Frederick County, Loudoun County, Manassas, Prince William County, Shenandoah County, Warren County, and Winchester.
In general, the illness has been reported in nearly a dozen states, including Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.
What’s the cause?
At this point, a cause has not yet been determined. Several wildlife disease laboratories – U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, the University of Georgia Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS), and the University of Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program -- are working together to identify the cause of this illness.
Several causes have been ruled out, including avian influenza, mycoplasma bacteria, avian pox, salmonella, West Nile Virus, and various herpes viruses.
What is the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources recommendation?
Throughout the summer, the recommendation has been that if you live in the affected area, take down all bird feeders and empty all birdbaths. Birds congregate and defecate at these sites, increasing the likelihood of spreading the illness through direct contact. While we do not yet know the cause of this illness and how it is spread, experts recommend taking this important step to reduce chances of an even more widespread outbreak until we know more.
As of mid-August, reports of sick and dead birds have greatly declined in many areas. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources has now lifted its previous recommendation to cease feeding birds in affected areas.
If you choose to resume feeding birds, wash all bird feeders and baths at least once a week. Remove all remaining seed and other organic debris, dissemble feeders as much as possible, then soak the feeder and perches in a bath of diluted bleach solution (1:10) for 10 minutes. Rinse feeder and perches carefully with water and allow to dry completely in the sun.
Residents of other states should check in with their wildlife/game department for state-specific recommendations.
What should I do if I find a dead bird?
If you live in Virginia, use this form to report to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. DWR recommends placing the bird(s) in a plastic bag, sealing the bag, and discarding with household trash; you may alternatively bury them at least three feet deep.
If you live outside of Virginia, check in with your state wildlife agency to see if they have a similar reporting form.
Are dead birds still being found?
Throughout the summer of 2021, the reports of symptomatic or deceased birds have declined, causing some organizations to suspect this Unusual Mortality Event may be coming to an end.
Where can I find more information?
Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources 2021 Avian Mortality Event Home Page
Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources 2021 Avian Mortality Impact Map
United States Geological Survey Interagency Statement on 2021 Avian Mortality Event