07/16/2021

Songbirds Suffer Mystery Illness From The East Coast To The Midwest

12:12 minutes

a closeup of a small black bird on the ground with white crustiness around its eyes
This bird was found in the Washington, D.C. metro region with swollen eyes and crusty discharge, a sign observed on most birds affected by a mysterious illness. Credit: Leslie Frattaroli, NPS

The reports started in late May: Songbirds in Washington, D.C. and neighboring regions were being found dead, often with swollen and crusty eyes. In the days that followed, similar sightings came from many states, including Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Now, the symptoms have been seen as far west as Indiana—but wildlife experts still aren’t sure what’s causing the deaths. 

The illness has affected many species, including American robins, blue jays, common grackles, and European starlings. So far, investigators have found no signs of   salmonella and chlamydia; avian influenza virus; West Nile virus and other flaviviruses; Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses; herpesviruses and poxviruses; or Trichomonas parasites. But unfortunately, their tests have been inconclusive as to the actual cause. Experts are asking people in the affected areas to be on the lookout for birds with crusty eyes or behaving strangely—and in an effort at avian social distancing, they’re suggesting removing bird feeders until the cause of the ‘mortality event’ is known. 

Ira talks with Allisyn Gillet, state ornithologist for Indiana, and Lisa Murphy, a toxicologist and co-director of the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, about what’s known so far about the illness, and about what steps investigators are taking to try to solve the medical mystery. 

If you find a bird exhibiting these symptoms, researchers encourage you to report it to the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania.


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Segment Guests

Allisyn Gillet

Allisyn Gillet is Indiana State Ornithologist in the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in Bloomington, Indiana.

Lisa Murphy

Lisa Murphy is an associate professor of Toxicology & Co-director of the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and resident director of the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

The transcript for this segment is being processed. It will be posted within one week after the episode airs.

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