Monday, September 6, 2021

Update on New Songbird Illness

Blue Jay by Ryan MarcumIn the spring and summer of 2021, the public reported many deaths in young songbirds—common grackles, American robins, blue jays, and other species—in the mid-Atlantic states. It was thought to be a new disease, or syndrome. Birds had swollen crusty eyes and/or an inability to hop or fly. Scientists at several regional laboratories have not been able to find a common disease agent or toxin that is the same for these bird deaths. They have ruled out many likely possibilities however, including: West Nile Virus, finch conjunctivitis, Avian Influenza, SARS-CoV-2 (virus that causes COVID-19 in humans), Newcastle Disease, various fungi, bacteria, parasites and viruses, and common toxins—including many pesticides.

So far, DEC has not documented any fledgling or adult birds in New York that fit the profile of this illness. We have received increased numbers of dead bird reports due to widespread media coverage, increased public awareness, and our own recommendations to report any suspicious bird deaths. Dead bird reports in the states where the illness was initially found have now decreased.

We will continue to monitor our bird populations for signs of the illness and to stay informed on the status in other nearby states. For updates on this bird illness please visit DEC’s animal diseases webpage or Cornell’s Wildlife Health Lab webpage.

Blue jay photo by Ryan Marcum/Almanack file photo

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Information attributed to NYSDEC is taken from press releases and news announcements from New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation.


8 Responses

  1. Joan Grabe says:

    It is still a mystery to me where all the birds have gone. The elder berries are ripe but where are the hummingbirds ? And the milkweed was healthy but the Monarchs were few. There was one duck family and few loons on the lake. I have not seen any dead birds or many deer or many anything ! It has been sort of a silent summer and it is sad and troubling.

    • JB says:

      I’m finding that the usual bird species habitually present on our property 50 mi. outside of the Park are probably unaffected by whatever is going on. The only observable long-term change during the past decade there has been the disappearance of the resident population of gray squirrels about 3 years ago and the disappearance in the last year of the resident Robin family (and many more bugs plus the weird weather, too). But in the Park, it does maybe seem that there has been less wildlife on our property just this past year. I think that it is no coincidence that all of these sudden mysterious trends are coinciding with COVID. The deer decline that you are seeing could be explained by the highest deer take in the Park in 20 years, which is probably correlated with the historically high hunting license enrollment in 2020, which in turn is probably related to the pandemic. The same thing happened for bear. It is possible that wildlife in the Park that are accustomed to living on vacant properties are seeking refuge in more impenetrable terrain as people flee urban areas, which could in turn become a major stressor that affects long-term population. That type of thing has been observed in the past in other places. Maybe the bird illness is similarly related to some kind of increase in direct human-bird interaction. Some think it is related to the cicada brood, or rather peoples’ reactionary spraying of pesticides. Some think that everything is simply selection bias resulting from more human observations. Anyway, I think that trying to razor-focus our theories towards one explanation is ill advised, although convenient. Rather, the situation is likely the result of all of the above, plus more, and we humans need to think carefully about effecting our environment to such great degree that we can no longer make any meaningful conclusions.

  2. Nathan says:

    I have definitely seen seen bird populations slowly dwindle over the last 40 years. i remember in the 70’s that there would be sometimes a thousand birds in our yard at the feeders and spread seeds in driveway. over the years the number of birds has been declining in numbers and species. long gone are the hundreds of chickadees at once in the yard, flocks of bluejays 30 strong, crows 50 plus on occassion, mega flocks of 2,000 plus blackbirds migrating.
    Now it’s an event to see 2 dozen birds at the feeder at once. long gone are big flocks/groups. what used to be sometimes 40 doves are now 2,4 maybe 6 on a great day.
    What has happened? Huge increase in cars on the road, hitting more birds, way more people and pet cats, huge increases in salt on roads that birds eat in winter looking for gravel for their gizzards. Then pesticides, insecticides, fungicides that weaken their immune systems, increase cancer.
    It’s not just birds!!! bullfrogs, snakes, insects, fish, everything has decreased in numbers to almost non-exististant. SILENT SPRING is almost here, we were warned 50 years ago, yet nothing got better only massive increases in uses of horrible chemicals that last 100 plus years. All for profits of huge corporations, sold under lies and used by masses of people.
    think of Scott’s yard 1,2,3,4 all loaded with poisons, spread on millions of yards every year. a single product to do what? make a sterile green lawn. no diversity of plants, no insects. toxic land to spread into our waters. IF it kills something~~it cant be good to other creatures. Think!!!! before you buy a can of wasp spray, insectide granules for ants, herbicide for your grass. kill the bugs, starve and poison your birds!

    • Boreas says:


      Unfortunately, what you say is true. The FDA barely is adequate to determine safety standards for humans, let alone the short and long-term effects of any new chemical on other species. Chemical manufacturers never have. Toxic chemicals and compounds (plastics) are only part of the puzzle, but we certainly have the ability to be more careful with them.

      Virtually all animal and plant families are seeing reductions in diversity (extinction) and numbers – and it is alarming. And these are the species we have cataloged – there are huge numbers of microbial and microscopic flora and fauna that will likely become extinct before we knew they even existed! Scientists really aren’t sure why we are in this extinction event. Obviously, humans are a large factor, but is unlikely the only factor. Many previous extinction events implicated increases in volcanic activity, but what prompted the volcanic activity? Changes in the solar system or even galaxy? The sun’s radiation output has not always been constant, and how much do galactic and deep-space radiation changes affect Earth?

      As humans, all we can hope to do is lessen our species’ impact on the planet. But it will likely take more than another Rachel Carson to motivate us. With our intelligence, humans seem to have lost the ability to fit in with Nature by thinking we can control it.

    • JB says:

      Nathan and Boreas, kudos to both of you for calling out silent “everyday” destroyers.

      I often think: what good will it do when we are all driving electric vehicles and heating with heat pumps powered by renewables, if these technologies will simply enable our further perpetration, with greater exculpability, of more sprawl, more wastewater and pesticide runoff, more development and more wholesale ecosystem fragmentation? Astonishingly, even if EPA and DEC were to further restrict herbicide, fungicide and insecticide application to lawns and crops, there would still be thousands of tons of biocides (alongside tens of thousands of mostly undisclosed proprietary compounds) being put into the environment everyday with every new coat of paint on every house, dock and boat and with just about every cleaning product flushed down every drain.

      That will never change for as long as people fixate exclusively on issues like atmospheric greenhouse gases and ocean plastics, for which no single nation can ever be held directly responsible, rather than admitting to the everyday sources of degradation in our own backyards. Sure, industrialized human society has traded health and biodiversity for thoughtless conveniences. But first and foremost, we have deliberately supplanted reverence, respect and reciprocity by the monomaniacal Lathean ooze of revelry, spite and nihilism. How valuable really is our epistemic regime ever to become if it alone determines the metrics of its own value? At heart is not a matter of a social belief that we can dominate our own environment–we have always been made acutely aware of our own impotence with each passing day, and now, in the shadowy twilight of religion, that sense of impotence appears infinitely larger against the backdrop of a sky devoid of any omnipotent being. In truth, our destructiveness springs from the dark depths of our own amortization of the kosmos, that very one which we destroy.

      “That which is not good for the bee-hive, cannot be good for the bee.” But if the bee-hive is simply an empty shell surrounding artificial social constructs, how is the bee to notice?…Especially when his honey has been so thoroughly poisoned.

  3. Mary says:

    Cornell lab or ornithology has published their opinion on this syndrome. Why not reference an expert there? You could call an expert and add their opinion. If no calls, then you can reference cornell chronicle.

    One of the staff members lives around lake champlain.

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