- Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
MassWildlife is providing an update on the bird illness in other states and modifying its recommendations regarding bird feeding. In mid-July, due to an unknown illness in birds from other states in the mid-Atlantic and mid-west region, MassWildife requested the public report bird mortalities and stop using bird feeders and bird baths. Since then, MassWildlife has been monitoring bird mortality reports and communicating with other state wildlife biologists and wildlife disease professionals. This announcement comes after MassWildlife participated in a recent regional meeting with northeastern state and federal wildlife biologists and other natural resource professionals.
MassWildlife thanks all residents who reported bird mortalities or took other actions to protect bird populations. Although there were some reports of sick birds showing symptoms consistent with the mystery illness, it was not confirmed to be found in Massachusetts. The cause of large scale bird mortality events documented in at least 10 states since May remains unknown despite extensive and continued testing at the National Wildlife Health Center and other laboratories. While no definitive illness or cause of death has been determined, reports of sick and dead birds have dramatically decreased in the impacted states. Researchers have ruled out all of the typical bird illnesses including avian influenza, West Nile Virus, and Newcastle Disease. Furthermore, toxicology results have been negative for heavy metals and common pesticides and herbicides. Wildlife disease specialists found no direct evidence linking the disease to cicada brood emergence events. No human health or domestic animal (livestock, poultry, pets) issues have been documented.
Based on current knowledge, there is no indication that bird feeders and baths are contributing to the spread of this recent illness. Despite this, MassWildlife cautions rushing to put your bird feeders back up, as bird seed and suet are known to attract other animals like rodents, bears, and turkeys, which can cause conflicts between humans and wildlife. If you choose to resume feeding birds, MassWildlife advises taking certain bird health and safety precautions. Since birds congregating at feeders and baths can still spread other diseases, take extra care to disinfect these surfaces on at least a weekly basis. Clean with soap and water then disinfect with a 10% bleach solution, rinse with clean water, and allow to air-dry. If you observe dead or sick birds at or near a feeder, MassWildlife recommends removing and cleaning feeders and leaving them down for at least two weeks.
Rather than using bird feeders, MassWildlife suggests considering alternatives which attract birds to yards such as planting native plants, shrubs, or trees, installing water features, and erecting bird houses. These bird-friendly actions safely attract a wider variety of birds while avoiding the potential nuisance issues associated with bird seed (i.e., rodents, bears). Learn about how to attract birds to your yard naturally without feeders. MassWildlife especially discourages bird feeding in bear country—currently the Berkshires east to Worcester County and communities in Middlesex County bordering Rte. 495. With the onset of autumn, bears are entering a time period called hyperphagia. They travel more widely searching for food and consuming thousands of calories each day to fatten up for winter. With their keen sense of smell, bears will follow their noses for the high caloric content that bird seed, suet, corn, and other bird foods provide. They and their young will return to those locations which in the long term is not a safe situation for bears or people. Keep bears wild, don’t feed them!
State wildlife officials will continue to monitor the situation in Massachusetts and communicate with wildlife disease specialists on this illness. If you observe any sick birds showing crusty eyes and neurological symptoms (i.e., stumbling, inability to fly), please report it to MassWildlife using this online form. When new information on the disease becomes available, it will be shared.
Original bird feeder announcement (July 14)
In late May, wildlife managers in Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky began receiving reports of sick and dying birds with eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs. More recently, additional reports have been received from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. While the majority of affected birds are reported to be fledgling common grackles, blue jays, European starlings, and American robins, other species of songbirds have been reported as well. No definitive cause(s) of illness or death have been determined at this time.
While there is always an increase in reports of dead birds at this time of year due to natural high mortality rates of young birds, MassWildlife is encouraging the public to report any observations of sick or dead birds (with unknown cause of mortality) as a precaution to help track this widespread mortality event. However, the mystery disease is not known to be in any of the New England states at this time. It is not necessary to report dead birds where strong evidence links the mortality to collision with glass or vehicles or predation by cats. Use this online form to report observations and upload photos.
As another cautionary measure, MassWildlife and Mass Audubon are also recommending the public to stop using all bird feeders and bird baths at this time. Birds congregating at bird feeders and bird baths can transmit diseases to one another. MassWildlife, as well as other wildlife agencies in the region, recommend taking the following precautions:
- Cease feeding birds until this wildlife morbidity/mortality event subsides.
- Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach mixed with nine parts water), rinse with water, and allow to air-dry.
- Avoid handling birds unless necessary. If you do handle them, wear disposable gloves and wash hands afterwards.
- If picking up a dead bird, place an inverted plastic bag over your hand to avoid direct contact with the bird. To dispose of dead birds, place them in a plastic bag, seal, and discard with household trash or alternatively bury them deeply.
- Keep pets (including pet birds) away from sick or dead wild birds as a standard precaution.
At this time of year, birds are able to find plenty of natural foods on the landscape without needing bird seed. MassWildlife advises that seed from bird feeders can draw the unwanted attention of squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, mice, rats, and even black bears. Wild animals that become habituated to human-associated foods like bird seed can become a nuisance, spread disease, and cause problems. You can learn how to attract birds to your yard naturally throughout the year using native plants. Get tips here.