Young American robins are among the songbirds impacted by an unknown disease that has killed songbirds in some parts of the eastern U.S. AP file photo

Officials in Maine are monitoring the spread of a mysterious disease that has caused blindness and death in songbirds throughout the mid-Atlantic states and Ohio Valley in recent months. But Maine biologists are not going as far as officials in Connecticut and Massachusetts, who have asked the public to take in feeders and bird baths.

As of Friday, the disease has not been found in birds north of Pennsylvania, said Adrienne Leppold, songbird biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Leppold said the illness is not a cause for concern in Maine at this time. 

“To be honest, I find the amount of outdoor cats and window strikes way more alarming for birds and bird populations than this disease,” Leppold said.

Scientists don’t yet know what is causing the disease – or even if taking down bird feeders helps stop the spread of it, she said.

“They’ve been able to rule out what it is not – it’s not a few of the common diseases, such as West Nile,” Leppold said. “And there is no evidence that it’s zoonotic – that it transmits to other animals. It is not any of the identified kinds of fungus or … viruses out there.”

The unknown bird disease has been reported in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Washington D.C., the National Audubon Society said. It has affected mostly young blue jays, common grackles, European starlings and American robins, and some songbird species. The symptoms include eye swelling and crusty discharge, but also apparent neurological problems with birds seeming disoriented.

Leppold is not concerned at this time that the disease will spread to Maine because the spring migration has ended and any bird migrations now will occur north to south. And, she added, there is some speculation the that disease is caused by emerging cicadas hatching this year in the mid-Atlantic and South.

Leppold said the disease would first show up in New York or Connecticut before Maine. She called the chance of it occurring here first “infinitesimally small.”  

Maine Audubon Naturalist Doug Hitchcox said public interest in the disease – and steps being taken elsewhere in New England to stem the spread – is surprising given there are greater, more obvious threats to bird populations in the United States.

“Outdoor cats contribute to bird mortality at an alarming rate,” Hitchcox said. “Over 2 billion birds in the United States are killed by outdoor cats. That is almost hard to wrap your head around.”

Hitchcox first started getting questions from the public about it around July 4. Last week, emails about the disease filled his inbox. One woman in Augusta was distraught – because she took up backyard birding with feeders during the pandemic and didn’t want to give up her newfound passion, Hitchcox said.

But Maine Audubon will follow IFW and not recommend any action by the public other than the normal cleaning of feeders. Hitchcox said people should clean seed feeders at least four times a year to stop the spread of fungus and disease, and every three days for hummingbird feeders.

“I thought it would be premature for us to jump on board, just because everyone else was,” Hitchcox said. “I don’t want to sound critical of Massachusetts’ decision, but it seems way too much of a step for not having enough information. I have a theory that if we were not coming out of a pandemic, this would not be as big a story.”


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