Social distancing for birds? Kentucky takes steps, investigates after bird mortality event

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Social distancing is now for the birds, too.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, or KDFWR, is investigating a bird mortality event that might be spread by a high density of , such as near feeders. According to the department, reports of ill and dying birds started arriving in late May, most of them from Jefferson, Boone and Kenton counties.

However, the cause remains unknown.

Dr. Christine Casey, a wildlife veterinarian for KDFWR, works on the case in conjunction with institutes like the National Wildlife Health Center and the University of Georgia's Southeastern Cooperative of Wildlife Disease Study, or SCWDS. Casey said that reports come from multiple states, such as Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, Indiana and Washington, D.C.

According to Casey, reported symptoms in birds include swelling and crusty discharge in the eye area, as well as neurological problems. She said these present as uncoordinated movements, contorted necks or rapid eye activity.

The condition does not seem to affect all birds; Casey said that the most frequently reported varieties are passerines, including blue jays, common grackles and European starlings, although the KDFWR has seen a few reports of other bird species. However, she said the department has not received reports from pet bird species and poultry; these bird varieties seem unaffected.

Andrew Melnykovych, president of the Beckham Bird Club in Louisville, said blue jays, grackles and starlings are not endangered varieties in terms of numbers, but any mortality event is concerning.

"We've got a lot of species in North America in general, and Kentucky specifically, that are in a great deal of trouble, and, you know, we can't afford to have widespread bird mortality from any more causes than we have already that is going to further stress these kinds of species," he said, citing habitat loss, outdoor cats and flying into buildings as other threats.

This mortality event seems to be distinct from the salmonella outbreak seen among finch populations earlier in the year, and until the KDFWR knows what is causing it, Casey said it is hard to know if or when this particular mortality event happened before in Kentucky. She also said a contributing factor might also be the fungus associated with this year's cicada brood, although the symptoms in birds seem to be bacterial, not fungal, in nature.

"This is essentially like an epidemiologic investigation," Casey said. "We're trying to put together the pieces, basically what is impacting, what was causing this disease."

Casey said the department began collecting carcasses of infected birds in early June, sending around 20 of them to the SCWDS and other diagnostic labs for testing—a process that can take up to six weeks.

On June 18, the KDFWR opened an online form that Kentuckians can use to report sick or dead birds. Casey said the department has received around 700 reports since then, mostly from central and northern Kentucky.

"The issue there is that doesn't necessarily mean that there's 700 reports of birds related to this event," she said. "We have to now go through and kind of sort out what is suspicious or possibly related to this mortality event, because a lot of the time, people may see dying birds, but it could just be a normal cause of death."

Melnykovych said sightings of infected birds are not uniformly dispersed across Jefferson County; he has not personally seen any sick or dead birds related to the event. "I don't know if it's confined to a few small areas, or where there's a higher density of birds or what's going on," he said. " I don't think anybody has a clear understanding at this point."

The event seems to be concentrated in a few areas of the Commonwealth, namely northern and central Kentucky; Melnykovych said this might be because of the higher population density there.

"One of the things that I've seen is that most of the reports of mortality are coming from more urban areas, so Louisville and northern Kentucky. And I think in those kinds of circumstances, it's just a question of is it because there are more people there, watching birds, looking at birds? You know, the fact that you've got a higher population density makes it more likely for things like that to be noticed. Or is it something that is related to the fact that it's a more urban environment? And I don't think, we certainly don't, have that answer yet," he said.

What to do and how to help

Casey said that Kentuckians can report a sick or dying bird using the form on the KDFWR website, and including photos can help identify its species and whether it is one of the infected. Although leaving a dead bird alone is preferable, she said that if it needs to be moved, being safe is important.

"If you have to dispose of it wearing gloves, just make sure that you're protecting yourself and using good hygiene practices and putting it in a trash bag. You can double bag it, and you can just throw it away with waste disposal," Casey said.

Bird feeders might also exacerbate the problem, as they are gathering places for birds. The KDFWR is encouraging Kentuckians to clean their feeders with a 10% bleach solution, and in Louisville and northern Kentucky, the department has asked that residents take down feeders until further notice—reminiscent of social distancing mandates.

"That's not necessarily because the feeders themselves are the source of infection, but because feeders tend to concentrate birds in, you know, higher density around feeders, and that can allow for more disease transmission," Melnykovych said.

However, until the KDFWR knows exactly what is causing this event, it is difficult to know what precautionary steps to take. "There's really all possibilities to be explored at this point," Casey said.

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