As Mystery Disease Kills Birds in the U.S., Researchers Want Maritimers to be Cautious

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A mysterious disease is sickening and killing birds all through the eastern United States, and researchers are watching out for similar cases in the Maritimes.

“We haven’t seen it in our region,” said Megan Jones, regional director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Atlantic Region, based in P.E.I.

“But we’re one of the Canadian regions that would be most likely to see this disease pop up, because of where it has been found in the U.S.”

The contagious disease is just new, there is not even a name for it yet.

4 species most affected

It affects mostly four species; the common grackle, blue jays, American robins and European starling.

“All of which are very common in our region, as you know,” said Jones.

The source of the infection in birds is not yet known, but it causes conjunctivitis, an inflammation around the eyes.

Those birds the disease doesn’t kill, behave abnormally. They show a tremor or behave lethargically and have “swollen, crusty eyes,” Jones said.

“Sometimes their eyes are sort of discoloured. That’s the most-striking feature when you see a sick bird with this disease.”

The disease was first discovered in the Washington, D.C., area in May, but has now been identified through New Jersey and south to Florida.

Mostly fledgling birds, or those that have just left their nests, are affected, said Jones.

Help from the public

Jones said the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, which is a national network of wildlife health specialists, has been asking members of the public to watch for sick birds and to reach out if they see anything suspicious.

The co-operative will also take dead birds found by the public.

“We can examine them in our laboratory and do some testing to see if these cases meet the case definition,” said Jones.

“We would look to see if the symptoms fit with this definition and then we would include it in the larger case series that scientists in the U.S. are also examining.”

She said they are relying on observant members of the public and the provincial wildlife agencies and wildlife rehabilitators to figure out if the disease has reached the Maritimes.

Bird feeders super-spreaders

Researchers are recommending persons take down their bird feeders in places where birds with the disease are found.

While the mystery disease doesn’t seem to have hit New Brunswick yet, Jones said other infectious diseases like trichomoniasis, spread when birds flock in feeders.

Trichomoniasis is an infectious disease in which a parasite gets into the bird’s mouth and causes damage to the tissues in the mouth and esophagus.

“That is also a disease that we would ask people to also keep an eye out for.”

Jones said if persons don’t want to take their feeders down, they should at least disinfect them every few weeks with water, soap, and diluted bleach.

At this point, researchers claim they are not concerned regarding population decline, but it is still early.

“We don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Jones said. “We know it has the potential to cause mortality, but we don’t have accurate numbers from year to year.”

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