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Mysterious bird illness hits Vanderburgh County

A mysterious illness that has led to the deaths of songbirds in the eastern part of the country has made its way to Evansville

A mysterious illness that has led to the deaths of songbirds in the eastern part of the country has made its way to Vanderburgh County, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

The state DNR says the unknown disease has been detected in 53 Indiana counties, including Vanderburgh and Gibson counties with more than 280 reported cases.

The DNR began receiving reports in late May of sick and dying songbirds from Monroe County with a number of health issues, including eye swelling and crusty discharge around the eyes. Birds that have been primarily affected include blue jays, American robins, common grackles, starlings, northern cardinals, and brown-headed cowbirds.

“We’ve also discovered several neurological problems such as tremors, disorientation, and uncontrollable limbs and behaviors that indicate swelling of the head,” says Allisyn Gillet, an ornithologist with the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. “They would have their heads look as if they weighed too much.”

Cases first popped up in the Washington, D.C., area and have since been found in at least nine states: Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Indiana, and Florida. The Indiana DNR is also coordinating with other state and federal authorities to determine the cause of the disease.

The cause or transmission of the illness is currently unknown and still under investigation. DNR staff is working with the Indiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and the USGS National Wildlife Health center and is collecting samples to send to the lab. The DNR asks that any residents report dead songbirds to the DNR’s mortality homepage on its website.

Cindy Cifuentes, director of Natural Resources and Research at Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve says they have not reported any symptoms of the disease affecting their birds and the discovering new diseases in birds is not uncommon.

“We have seen some of the symptoms, not with our birds, but just within the county people have reported sick birds and the most common symptom that people are seeing are the eye discharge and crustiness around the eyes,” she says.
DNR officials are asking residents to take down their bird feeders to keep birds from congregating and possibly spreading the disease. The DNR also asks that residents drain their birdbaths and clean them with a 10 percent bleach solution. Additional information will be shared on the DNR website when it becomes available.

“When there are feeders, birds are immediately attracted to them,” she says. “They don’t have the knowhow that it’s not ok for them to do that when there is a disease going around. We need to better impose that on them so that they can naturally socially distance and feed on other things instead of the bird seed.”

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