Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Experts say mysterious bird disease not yet reported in Ill.
Cleaning or removing feeders recommended to contain spread
When Lorra Rudman found a dead red-headed woodpecker in her Lincolnshire backyard Tuesday, she decided to be extra cautious in light of the recent mysterious illness plaguing common backyard birds in Indiana and other states.
Though local experts say the illness is not yet a concern in Illinois, Rudman decided to remove her six feeders.
Biologists have not yet determined the illness’s cause, though they do not think it is linked to West Nile virus or avian influenza.
“I have a message hanging on my wall to hope for the best and plan for the worst,” said Rudman, adding she’s now working on creating a landscape in her yard that attracts birds.
For now, officials are advising Illinois residents to at least clean their feeders thoroughly in case the disease comes to the state, and to report instances of dead birds.
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, such as birds twitching their eyes, according to Allisyn Gillet, an ornithologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
Recently, more reports have come from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Most of the affected birds were fledgling common grackles, blue jays, European starlings and American robins. Other bird species including red-bellied woodpeckers have also been reported showing signs of the illness
Gillet said the condition is somewhat similar to house finch eye disease, which makes it difficult for the finches to see. But the mystery affliction affecting birds in Indiana and other states causes neurological effects not seen with house finch eye disease, she said.
“Though Illinois hasn’t received similar reports, we’re reminding residents that it’s always a good idea to ensure bird feeders and baths are clean and maintained to help keep bird populations healthy,” said Rachel Torbert, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
“We’re asking residents to clean bird feeders and bird baths frequently with a 10% bleach solution,” she wrote in an email. “This helps sanitize areas where birds congregate and can help prevent the spread of disease.”
That’s something those who feed birds should periodically do each year anyway, said Nan Buckardt, director of environmental education for the Lake County Forest Preserve District.
The district has no feeders on its properties, although Buckardt has put up a few near where she lives at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods.
“At this point, I’m going to continue to have my feeders until there’s cause to remove them,” Buckardt said. “It’s selfish. I have a red-headed woodpecker that eats breakfast with me. I haven’t seen one dead bird at all this year. That doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
She said it is important to be mindful of the illness in an effort to keep it out of the area.
“We (can) minimize the human part of it, and that would be (by removing or cleaning) bird feeders. If it’s spreading through the woodland in the wild, there’s less humans can do to intervene,” Buckardt said.
“This is still a mystery; they’re still trying to figure it out,” Buckardt added. “In the suburban and urban areas, if people are concerned, they should clean and store their feeders. There’s plenty of food out there for birds right now. They’re not going to be suffering.”
When Rudman, who serves on the board of Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods, found the dead bird, she contacted Stefanie Fitzsimons, Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s district wildlife biologist for Lake, McHenry and Kane counties.
Fitzsimons told her that people should contact the department if they find five or more dead birds in close proximity.
“We can collect them and send them to our lab,” Fitzsimons wrote in the email.
A list of state wildlife biologists can be found on the Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s website.
Some local nonprofit wildlife organizations are being as cautious as Rudman.
Christine Williamson, conservation chair for the Chicago Ornithological Society, wrote in an online blog that “It’s probably a good idea for Illinois residents to take down their feeders and empty their bird baths, clean them … and don’t use them until the disease is under control.”
Rudman said she gets immense pleasure from watching birds at her feeders.
“It’s an infinite source of joy and fascination and learning,” she said.
But there are other ways to attract birds to yards besides feeders, she said. That’s why she is removing nonnative plant species and incorporating native ones into her yard that attract birds.
“Yesterday, I planted my first tree — a 4-foot-high bur oak tree,” she said. “I also put in a serviceberry.”
Both native trees provide food and shelter to birds, she said.