Mid-Atlantic Bird Disease Outbreak: No Change to Recommendations

Bird feeders are still empty and indoors at Mass Audubon sanctuaries (as they mostly are statewide). We miss seeing our visiting chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, and woodpeckers at our nature centers and offices!  

Keeping feeders down is still the right decision in light of the disease outbreak in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest. So far, the disease has not spread into New England, and there’s no immediate cause for concern at this point—only caution. 

Blue Jay sitting on bar copyright Richard Morreale
Blue Jay © Richard Morreale

Hold tight! 

It is possible that nothing will change for the next couple of weeks, and perhaps even the rest of the summer. It’s worth checking back on this blog or on the MassWildlife website later in August for any future updates.  

Both MassWildlife and their state agency counterparts in Connecticut and Rhode Island continue to ask that people pause feeding birds statewide.

Luckily, late spring and summer are the seasons when insects, water, wild seeds, and fruits are abundant. These natural foods have sustained birds in the warm season since long before we began feeding them.

More Unknowns than Knowns 

The cause of the outbreak is still unknown, and identifying the cause of any new avian disease is a process of elimination. So far, wildlife health experts have confirmed that the disease is not due to West Nile virus, avian flu, conjunctivitis, or agricultural pesticides or herbicides. A hypothetical link to the Brood X cicada emergence in the Mid-Atlantic has also been ruled out. 

We also don’t really know if this disease can be passed from bird to bird yet. Some of the affected birds show signs of eye infections—which suggest, but do not confirm, that it’s transmissible.  

This disease spread rapidly in its early stages, though the numbers appear to be stabilizing in some states. We do know that birdfeeders and birdbaths have in the past facilitated other outbreaks of disease, like salmonella and conjunctivitis, because they provide shared surfaces where birds congregate densely and frequently.  

By temporarily removing your feeders and bird baths, you are reducing the chances that this disease will spread into Massachusetts. Thank you. We can’t wait to get back to feeding birds as soon as it’s prudent, and we’ll be sure to let you know when that is.

This entry was posted in Birds & Birding and tagged , on by .

About William Freedberg

Studies indicate that Will Freedberg occupies the ecological niche of a semi-nocturnal generalist. His habits change seasonally, doing fieldwork and bird surveys in the summer, but also blogging, coordinating volunteers, taking photos, and doing background research. Life history traits include growing up in Boston and reluctantly graduating from Yale College. Behavioral research shows that William occasionally migrates to the tropics to seek out Hoatzins, pangolins, and sloths, but mostly socializes with his age cohort in urbanized areas of eastern North America. He is short-sighted, slow to react, and a poor swimmer.

42 thoughts on “Mid-Atlantic Bird Disease Outbreak: No Change to Recommendations

    1. William Freedberg Post author

      Yes, absolutely promising– cases are on the decline. The risk is still non-zero, but we anticipate being able to send out an update by the end of this week.

      Reply
  1. Colleen Feltus

    Hi,
    It is now 8/22/21 and I was wondering if there will be an update to the recommendations any time soon?
    Thank you, Colleen

    Reply
    1. Mark J McMenemy

      Mass Audubon defers to Mass Wildlife on this one and after looking at Mass Wildlife’s site, they NEVER recommend birdfeeders because they attract bears and alter migration. We are on our own on this.
      Once they determined there was nothing transmissible so bird congregation wasn’t a problem and seed was tested, I cleaned my feeders and put them back.

      Reply
      1. William Freedberg Post author

        Hi Mark,
        Here’s where we’re coming from at the moment: There is no evidence at the moment that this condition is environmental or non-transmissible. While the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Cornell center for vet med have suggested it could be transmissible or non-transmissible, there are plenty of signs pointing towards a pathogenic illness (like eye infections and sudden degeneration of eye tissue– very difficult to believe an environmental factor or chemical could be targeting eye tissue alone!)
        It is also unlikely to be caused by cicadas, although this is a popular theory: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/373/6551/146.summary

        It is likely that we will update these guidelines this week. In the meantime, please hang tight. There is nothing to be lost (ecologically speaking) by following these guidelines for a little while longer, and feeding birds at the moment is not risk-free.

        Reply
        1. Mark J McMenemy

          The burden of proof falls on the positive assertion. I’ve heard the leading suspect was a fungus on ground insects including cicadas and not transmissible. Fortunately, it’s on the decline as you’ve said and migrations should only move it away from us for now. I agree nothing is risk-free.

          Reply
    2. William Freedberg Post author

      Hi Colleen,
      We are hoping to issue an update by the end of this week. We’re optimistic about how things are looking now.

      Reply
  2. Jan

    Ok to put back bird baths especially in dry areas during the current heat wave? Seems the birds need an abundance of fresh water!

    Reply
  3. Jill G

    I was wondering when it will be safe to put the bird feeeders back up. I have several feeders a bird bath and 10 bird houses. Please let me know as soon as possible.

    Reply
  4. Rey Fortney

    So we’ve been semi-aware of this situation but have continued to seed our feeder and water baths. We only have 2 feeders and baths. Yesterday we noticed a very sick looking small brown sparrow or finch (we aren’t expert identifiers). Saw the bird later on a feeder and I walked with 2 feet of it and no movement. I could have touched it no problem. Looked VERY ragged and greasy. I think one eye was covered with stuff. It did ultimately move off the feeder bur clearly was highly compromised.

    Today while mowing the lawn I encountered 2 small brown birds that looked in better shape but not right. One was one a bath edge and I actually touched it with a twig. It did fly but wasn’t right. I was maybe 12 inches from it. The 2nd was at our window feeder and I was right next to it before it flew off. Clearly was not flying right. Obviously I brought everything in.

    So bummed as this year we’ve had an amazing variety of bird friends. Major amount of Gold finches and the usual mix of C wrens, red house finch, chickees etc. We even had some orioles and red breasted grosbeaks.

    We live in Ashland, MA which is about 20 miles west of Boston.

    This is sad

    Reply
  5. Ruth

    Are we sure that it is not in MA? A neighbor reported finding a catatonic, crusty-eyed robin in her driveway. She notified the relevant local authorities. The robins that lived in my evergreens are gone.

    Reply
    1. William Freedberg Post author

      We are definitely NOT sure if the disease has reached MA, which is one of many reasons for caution– only a tiny fraction of sick birds get noticed by a human, and a tiny fraction of those get brought to our attention (or another relevant organization’s). It would be awesome of your neighbor passed the report on to MassWildlife!

      Reply
      1. Mary

        Hi William, thanks for the updates. How to report to Mass Wildlife? I just had a very disoriented bird on my porch in Hamilton MA with a large, round sore on its foot/ankle. Its symptoms don’t sound like they align with this outbreak but I figured it was worth reporting anyway.

        Reply
  6. John Mccarthy

    Just wondering, the goldfinch feeders I have, (had), only attracted goldfinch. Is it safe to leave those up?

    Reply
    1. William Freedberg Post author

      We are recommending that all feeders that attract birds– whether finches, hummingbirds, or anything else– come in until MassWildlife gives the all-clear. We’re in close discussion with them about when that may be. The disease is declining, although CT has reported a few possible cases, which is a concern.

      Reply
    1. William Freedberg Post author

      Hi Albert– yes, we will keep posting updates to this blog as we’ve been doing, and will notify folks as soon as we can in good faith give the all-clear!

      Reply
  7. Janice

    After reading the email from Wild Birds Unlimited, my resolve to keep my feeders indoors weakened. I put out just a handful or two of no mess blend today, and my feathered friends the goldfinches, woodpeckers, blue jays and cardinals returned as soon as the downpours let up. I thought they had moved on, but they are out there, just waiting patiently for the feeders to go back up. They all appear to be healthy and I’ll do my part to be sure they stay that way by waiting patiently, too.

    Reply
  8. Cassie Eckhof

    It’s so quiet here without the regular bird visitors and the hawk circles endlessly expecting to find its prey. But if the Audubon staff are missing their birds, too, I’ll be a good doobee.

    Reply
    1. William Freedberg Post author

      Hi Angela. The best evidence so far (see two articles linked below) suggests that cicadas are not the cause of the illness. The range and timing of the disease doesn’t line up neatly enough with the range and timing of the cicadas, and it’s our understanding that birds continued to fall ill with new cases for a while after the cicada emergence died down. There’s no consensus writing off this theory entirely, though– we don’t expect there to be with such a new and poorly understood topic, and the news article you posted does share a perspective that is still circulating! For now, here are two good articles that mention why the cicada theory has fallen out of favor. Without commenting on what businesses are doing, local conservation organizations and state wildlife agencies are for the moment still asking that we all be cautious.

      https://science.sciencemag.org/content/373/6551/146/tab-pdf

      https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/what-we-know-about-the-mystery-bird-death-crisis-on-the-east-coast?cmpid=int_org=ngp::int_mc=website::int_src=ngp::int_cmp=amp::int_add=amp_readtherest

      Reply
    1. William Freedberg Post author

      Hi Mark. The best evidence so far (and see two articles linked below) suggests that cicadas are not the cause of the illness. The range and timing of the disease doesn’t line up neatly enough with the range and timing of the cicadas, and it’s our understanding that birds continued to fall ill with new cases for a while after the cicada emergence died down. There’s no consensus writing off this theory entirely, though, and the article you posted does share a perspective that is still circulating! For now, here are two good pieces that mention why the cicada theory has fallen out of favor.

      https://science.sciencemag.org/content/373/6551/146/tab-pdf

      https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/what-we-know-about-the-mystery-bird-death-crisis-on-the-east-coast?cmpid=int_org=ngp::int_mc=website::int_src=ngp::int_cmp=amp::int_add=amp_readtherest

      Reply
    2. Lori

      A new article was just released in Boston saying: “Officials with the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab say they believe the outbreak is related to cicadas emerging in some parts of the Eastern seaboard this summer.

      They say nothing infectious was found in birds with the illness. The area where the illnesses were reported match the area where the cicadas emerged earlier this year, leading experts to believe ingesting the insects could be having toxic effects on the birds. The illness first showed up in the southeastern U.S. before spreading to parts of the Mid-Atlantic. There were no cases of the illness or cicadas in New England. But wildlife experts are still suggesting holding off putting up bird feeders”.

      Reply
      1. William Freedberg Post author

        This is a theory that has gained some steam in the news media, and may yet prove to be true, although the best evidence so far (see two articles linked below) suggests that cicadas are not the cause of the illness. The range and timing of the disease doesn’t line up neatly enough with the range and timing of the cicadas, and it’s our understanding that birds continued to fall ill with new cases for a while after the cicada emergence died down. There’s no consensus writing off this theory entirely, though– we don’t expect there to be with such a new and poorly understood topic, and the news article you mentioned does share a perspective that is still circulating! For now, here are two good pieces that explain why the cicada theory has fallen out of favor. Conservation organizations and state wildlife agencies are for the moment still asking that we all be cautious, though.

        https://science.sciencemag.org/content/373/6551/146/tab-pdf

        https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/what-we-know-about-the-mystery-bird-death-crisis-on-the-east-coast?cmpid=int_org=ngp::int_mc=website::int_src=ngp::int_cmp=amp::int_add=amp_readtherest

        Reply
  9. Larry Baitch

    Just read your article in the Telegraph. Didn’t know about the disease- we have numerous feeders and lots of yard birds of all types. We will take your advice and wash them out and not refill them.

    Meanwhile found a dead Titmouse in our driveway today. Doesn’t look like a hawk kill- no wounds.

    Reply
  10. Bob H

    While I respect what the Audubon Society does, I take issue with the latest recommendation for Massachusetts (I am NOT an anti-science person). I believe the recommendations are extreme and overly cautious. The northern border of the disease outbreak is 350 miles away from my home. Websites of the infected states are saying the disease is waning and does not seem to have spread northward.

    Meanwhile, I initially followed the recommendations and took down my feeders, which have been up for the last 6 years. I have had constant activity of many dozens of birds – comprising up to 30 species over the seasons. After a complete cleaning and disinfecting, I have decided to put the feeders back up. After three days, I have a total of 3 goldfinches. It is my contention that most of the birds have left the area. Nevertheless. I am keeping a close eye out for symptoms of the disease in those few that have returned.

    I really believe that the recommendations were premature and extreme. More time could have been taken for observation and tracking of the disease. If it started to make its way northward, say to the NY city area and CT, there should still have been time for MA residents to take action. One good thing that came out of this, admittedly, is that I will be cleaning my feeders more often and keeping a more watchful eye on the birds’ conditions.

    There must be a certain level of common sense applied when advising the public on situations such as this. After all, we are not dealing with the same level of caution needed for, say, a coronavirus pandemic, for which caution cannot be overstated.

    Reply
  11. Patty Markham

    Does this include hummingbird feeders? I’d be worried that they won’t find enough to eat.
    Thanks,
    Patty from Cape Cod

    Reply
    1. Ryan D.

      Removing hummingbird feeders is a prudent additional step. Even though no cases have been reported in hummingbirds yet, nectar feeders can attract other species of birds that occasionally use nectar for a calorie boost, like orioles or woodpeckers. Flowers that hummingbirds feed on are abundant in late summer and provide food without the shared, nonporous plastic perches that are easier for some pathogens to live on. Planting native, nectar-bearing plants is a great way to keep enjoying hummingbirds that benefit the ecosystem more broadly.

      Reply
  12. Thérèse Goodchild

    We, my husband John and I, are hoping to once again take part in backyard feeder watch in October. Please tell us when the all clear is sounded. Thanks

    Reply
    1. William Freedberg Post author

      We’ve been focused on New England, and are not in close touch with any wildlife agencies outside of the region (except a few phone calls to organizations and agencies in affected areas). This would be a great question for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. They probably have put good thought into the issue, just as MassWildlife, the Connecticut DEEP, and other agencies have as well.

      Reply
    1. Ryan D.

      Removing hummingbird feeders is a prudent additional step. Even though no cases have been reported in hummingbirds yet, nectar feeders can attract other species of birds that occasionally use nectar for a calorie boost, like orioles or woodpeckers. Flowers that hummingbirds feed on are abundant in late summer and provide food without the shared, nonporous plastic perches that are easier for some pathogens to live on. Planting native, nectar-bearing plants is a great way to keep enjoying hummingbirds that benefit the ecosystem more broadly.

      Reply

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