A house finch enjoying a tasty snack.

A house finch enjoying a tasty snack.

According to a joint statement released by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine regarding the mysterious illness affecting Pennsylvania songbirds, while the cause is still unknown, incidences are believed to be decreasing.

The illness has been reported in 12 species of songbirds regularly found throughout Pennsylvania, including the Blue Jay, European Starling, Common Grackle, American Robin, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, House Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Wren.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission noted affected birds have been tested for toxins, parasites, bacterial diseases, and viral infections and to date, test results have been inconclusive.

In an article on the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab website, Jennifer Peaslee noted that the songbirds have been presenting with ocular lesions and/or neurological issues. While the ocular signs of the mystery illness are similar to Mycoplasma gallisepticum, though they differ in the fact that there is no sinus involvement.

“The most common eye lesions include swelling, corneal lesions and crust or pus in the eyes,” said Peaslee. “The neurologic signs include head tremors or seizures, inability to stand or leg paralysis and increased vocalizations.”

In the most recent statement released through Cornell, while the illness and uncertainty around it are upsetting, “as of mid-July, it appears the incidence of the illness may be waning.”

No human health or domestic livestock/poultry issues have been reported regarding the illness and it’s also reported that “the illness is not caused by any of the major known bird diseases such as West Nile, salmonella, avian influenza, House Finch eye disease, Trichomonas parasites, etc.,” explained representatives from Cornell.

Additionally, it is unknown whether the illness is caused by a disease organism (virus, bacteria or parasite) or if it’s the result of a toxic substance in the landscape. If it were found to be a disease, it’s believed that it might be transmissible from bird to bird (like a cold or flu) or might require a vector (like how a mosquito transmits malaria).

Pennsylvania experts are still encouraging the public to follow the following precautionary measures until more is known:

  • Cease feeding birds and providing water in bird baths until the wildlife mortality event has concluded to prevent potential spread between birds and to other wildlife.
  • Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution.
  • Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if it’s necessary to handle a bird.
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.
  • To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard with household trash. This will prevent disease transmission to other birds and wildlife.

Those who find a sick or dead bird should avoid handling them unless necessary. If it is necessary to handle them, wear disposable gloves and/or other protective equipment. Additionally, keep pets away from sick or dead wild birds as a standard precaution.

Individuals are asked to report any sick or dead birds to their state wildlife conservation agency for further instructions and to help them track the event.