Avian deaths_Richard Cantor

Richard Cantor with the empty bird feeder he took down as a precaution in early July.

With millions of birds about to take to the sky for the fall migration, Westchester resident Richard Cantor wasn’t taking any chances, and his local Audubon Society chapter said he was doing the right thing.

Like many local residents, Mr. Cantor enjoys maintaining bird feeders on his property to attract various bird species. However, this year he found a dead wren in his driveway near one of his feeders and, after doing some research, Mr. Cantor realized he was not alone. Something has been killing birds in alarming numbers along the East Coast.

Starting in the spring around Washington, D.C., an unusual number of dead birds with strange symptoms have been reported throughout the mid-Atlantic, southern and mid-western states. The situation led several state environmental departments and Audubon Society chapters along the East Coast, including the Connecticut Audubon Society where Mr. Cantor is a member, to recommend taking down bird feeders and birdbaths.

“We’re about to start the migration and everyone is holding their breath,” said Mr. Cantor. 

That’s because scientists so far have not been able to pinpoint what exactly is killing the birds. Every year many fledgling birds die in nature, but this year has been different with an extraordinary number of dead birds, all of which have shown new, unusual symptoms. Many of the fledglings have been found blind with their eyes crusted over. The next phase brings on neurological problems that leave them spinning, shaking and falling, and eventually they die.

While the number of dead birds in places where it started like Virginia is decreasing, cases have been confirmed in Connecticut and New York and, overall, 12 states have reported cases of birds that have died from the disease.

“Bottom line is we don’t want to be overly concerned, and the main message is we need to be cautious, watch it and minimize the effect,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society. “The numbers have come down since the start, but we don’t have the ‘all clear’ yet. If this is contagious, it’s terrifying how the birds can spread it.”

On Aug. 20, however, Connecticut Audubon issued a much-welcomed update: “It’s OK to start feeding birds again,” it declared on its website. Officials said a sharp recent decline in the number of reported bird deaths prompted the turnabout.

Steve Ricker, director of conservation and wildlife management and general manager at Westmoreland Sanctuary, has been watching the situation carefully.

“I have been keeping a close eye on our feeders here and at my home. We have cleaned and disinfected them as well,” he said by email. “So far, I have had no instances of any birds showing signs of disease.” 

Scientists investigating the recent rise in bird deaths have ruled out a number of possible causes, including salmonella, avian flu and other viruses and parasites. There was a theory it might be related to the cicada swarms this year, but that has also been ruled out.

But Mr. Ricker isn’t so sure. “Now that the cicadas have stopped emerging the disease seems to have disappeared. It might have been pesticides used against the cicadas or a possible pathogen that the cicadas were carrying,” he conjectured.

The most alarming aspect, according to avian experts, is that several different species of birds have succumbed to the disease. That’s the main concern now, as millions of birds of all kinds, from songbirds to hawks, will start to migrate to new areas with the potential to spread the disease. 

Even with the threat of the mysterious disease possibly receding, there are precautions residents can take to keep birds safer, according to Mr. Ricker. “With this rainy and humid weather, it is important to not let your seed get moldy. Moldy seed can definitely make your birds sick,” he said.

Mr. Ricker noted that he puts out “much less seed in the summer months, so that it is not sitting too long in the feeders. This is a very good habit to get into even in the colder months as seed left in the feeders can attract unwanted guests at night, as well.” There has been a high incidence of bear sightings in Pound Ridge, Lewisboro and other sections of upper Westchester in recent months.

At this time of year, reassured Mr. Comins of the Audubon Society, there is plenty of food in nature, including insects and seeds, for birds to feed on, so they don’t really need bird feeders to supplement their diet.

The unusual disease, while it might be on the wane, is just one more problem for the vast local bird population that has seen a massive decline in both numbers and habitat loss over the last couple of decades.

“We’ve lost billions of birds in North America over the last few years — billions!” said Mr. Cantor. “We’re destroying the quality of the soil, the ecosystem, and we have a problem with extinction; [we are] losing species every day. It’s almost like the massive beehive collapse; it took a long time to hone in on what was causing it.

The good thing is where there have been interventions, we have seen success,” he said, adding, “They brought back bald eagles and falcons. The problem with this latest disease is that no one knows what is [causing] it, so we have to be cautious.” 

Jeff Morris contributed reporting to this article.

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