“And I knew right away”: Could mysterious songbird deaths in Pa. be connected to cicadas?

Environment

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The first time someone called Tracie Young to report a fledgling bird who couldn’t fly or walk well, she was tempted to shrug it off. After all, what baby bird can fly or walk well?

“But then the people were concerned, because they’re like, ‘The bird is wobbling. It’s falling over. There’s something wrong with their eyes,'” Young said, rehabilitator and director of Ridge Raven Wildlife Center in Lancaster. “So right away, we knew: Now it’s here.”

“It” is whatever has been killing young songbirds since May in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, several hundred such confirmed reports in Indiana, for example. Reports of dying and dead birds began emerging in Pennsylvania in June. At least 130 such reports in 36 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, including most Midstate counties, according to Dr. Scott Weber, a wildlife veterinarian and senior investigator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Futures center, which is collecting reports of dead and dying songbirds.

The birds have no chance, once they contract whatever is going around.

“A lot of them, we’re not even bringing into the center,” Young said. “We are euthanizing them. They will die from this virus.”

What’s to blame? No one knows. One theory: cicadas, or at least, something related to them, perhaps pesticides they consumed before birds consumed them.

Emily Garrigan, founder of West Shore Wildlife Center in York County, said insects make up a disproportionately large percentage of young birds’ diets because that’s what their mothers tend to bring back to the nest. Older birds have more varied diets, she said, while emphasizing cicadas are just one possibility among many.

Weber too said the theory is plausible — after all, the Brood X cicada emergence also began in Washington, D.C., in May.

“We are testing for some of the pesticides that have been used for cicada control in certain areas,” Weber said. “And we’re also testing for a fungal toxin that’s associated with cicadas.”

But so far, the testing has yielded no strong evidence of a connection.

No one knows for sure, either, whether the birds can transmit whatever they have to each other or to people and other animals.

To prevent transmission to other birds, authorities are asking people to decommission bird feeders and birdbaths for now. Wash them with a 10-percent bleach solution, and put them away. Young said people worry birds will starve without feeders, but feeders are more like a “fast-food restaurant” for people: easy and tasty but nothing they’ll starve without.

“They will find other natural resources as far as food and water,” she said. “But we don’t want to spread it any faster than it is spreading,” by encouraging birds to congregate.

As for preventing any spread to people or pets: Never handle a dead or dying bird with your bare hands; wear disposable gloves. And double-bag dead birds before disposing of them.

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