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Songbird outbreak is subsiding

Songbird outbreak is subsiding

A mysterious outbreak that has been affecting songbirds since May 2020 appears to be subsiding, and thanks to diligent reporting from North Carolina residents it seems to not be much affecting birds in the state, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission announced last week. 

The disease was reported in mostly mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, as far south as Virginia with a few cases in Florida. It affected mostly larger-bodied songbird fledglings, such as blue jays, American robins, European starlings and common grackles. Diseased birds showed an unusual set of symptoms beginning with crusty, swollen eyes that progressed into tremors, an inability to maintain balance and other neurological problems that ultimately ended in death. 

Multiple state wildlife agencies, conservation organizations and wildlife diagnostic labs have collaboratively tracked the outbreak to try and identify a cause, but its source remains a mystery. Hypothetical causes ranging from the Brood X cicada emergence to a variety of viruses, bacteria and parasites have all been ruled out. 

In North Carolina, lab results of deceased birds that were reported by the public indicate malnutrition and physical trauma as the cause of death — common hazards for young, inexperienced birds. Additional lab reports are still pending, but biologists don’t anticipate any novel findings. Other reports of sick songbirds in North Carolina mostly involved finches showing signs of common birdfeeder diseases.

Most songbird-related calls to the Wildlife Commission these days are people wanting to know if it’s safe to put their bird feeders back up. It is, if those who do so commit to sterilizing them often. As an alternative to bird feeders, consider establishing native trees, shrubs and flowers to attract birds and wildlife. 

Songbird feeders should be sanitized at least every two weeks, and more often in wet or humid conditions. Wildlife officials advise removing all remaining seed, scrubbing off debris, soaking the feeder in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water for 10 minutes and drying it completely before refilling. 

Hummingbird feeders should be sanitized at least once a week, and filled only with sugar water free of dyes or of other types of sweetener. 

The Wildlife Commission will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates. In the meantime, remove feeders immediately if sick or dead birds are found in the area. Wear gloves or use an inverted plastic bag to handle any deceased birds and keep pets and children away. The N.C. Wildlife Helpline is available 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at 866.318.2401 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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