Home Biologist Unknown bird disease: why you should take your bird feeders apart

Unknown bird disease: why you should take your bird feeders apart



Reports of dead or stumbling birds with crusty, puffy eyes are pouring into wildlife agencies in DC, Maryland and Virginia. No one knows what causes it.

WASHINGTON – A porch, a cup of coffee, a newspaper and a feeder full of birds: this is one of the few reliable experiences that got us through the 2020 pandemic.

But as people flock to bistros and concerts, the birds of the DMV face their own epidemic.

In June, wildlife organizations advised the public to take down their bird feeders and dry their birdbaths to contain potential contagion killing and infecting young birds. Their ads described birds falling dead or found stumbling with crusty, swollen eyes and signs of neurological problems.

Weeks passed without any conclusion as to what made these chicks sick. That’s when viewer Ralph from Gaithersburg contacted the Verify team.


Do you have to put your bird feeders back in place?


  • Meagan Thomas, observable wildlife biologist at the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources
  • Dan Rauch, Fisheries and Wildlife Biologist in the DC Department of Energy and Environment
  • Maryland Department of Natural Resources press release
  • US Geological Survey (USGS) press release
  • Bill Mulvihill, ornithologist at the National Aviary


Wildlife officials in DC, Maryland, and Virginia all say no; keep your bird feeders down for now.


In late April, early May, Meagan Thomas said she recalled receiving calls about sick and dead birds.

“Really puffy or crusty eyes, a lot of discharge,” said Thomas, an observable wildlife biologist. “In many cases, there was also evidence of neurological issues … balance issues or they were just going around in circles.”

Species at risk include starlings, blue jays, common blackbird and robins, and the disease has been reported in chicks or young birds.

RELATED: Wildlife Groups Investigate Bird Deaths in DC Area

While the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources has received more than 1,400 reports of dead or sick birds, Thomas says about 400 to 500 birds exhibited these specific symptoms.

Most of the reports came from northern Virginia, including hot spots in Arlington, Fairfax, Alexandria and Loudoun County.

Without a specific cause, those responsible for wildlife do not have a specific name for it. For now, authorities are calling it a “fatal event”.

“We’re not labeling it as ‘disease’ or anything like that at this point,” Thomas said.


In the District there is a similar situation.

“It sort of started when the district area was the epicenter of what we call a ‘bird mortality event’ at the moment,” said Dan Rauch, fisheries and wildlife biologist at the Department of DC Energy and Environment.

It didn’t take long for local and federal agencies, like the US Geological Survey, to partner with university labs.

So far, according to the USGS, these labs have been able to rule out a number of pathogens as the cause, including Salmonella and Chlamydia (bacterial pathogens); avian influenza virus; West Nile virus and other flaviviruses; Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses; herpes virus and poxvirus; and Trichomonas parasites.

Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, says he hasn’t seen the phenomenon up close. Yet, he said, “I get hundreds of phone calls and emails about this every day.

He explained that until scientists come to definitive conclusions, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

“Keep your feeders down,” Mulvihill said. “Wait until there is an announcement from one of the credible news sources.”

This is the same recommendation made by wildlife officials across the DMV. They also ask the public to keep their birdbaths clean, using a 10% bleach solution (1 part bleach: 9 parts water).

  • In Maryland call the Department of Natural Resources and USDA wildlife hotline: (877) -463-6497
  • In virginia use this report form of the Department of Wildlife
  • In the District of Columbia call the Humane Rescue Alliance at (202) -723-5730
  • The National Smithsonian also collects reports on birds

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