Blue Jay

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officers have been investigating an unknown bird illness affecting Kentucky and eight additional states. 

Along with Kentucky, wildlife agencies in Maryland, Washington D.C., West Virginia and Virginia began to receive reports about the illness in late May. Since then, five additional states have received reports, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Indiana and New Jersey.

Reports detail sick and dying birds with swollen eyes and crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs such as seizures and the inability to balance, according to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officials.

Most cases of the illness involve juvenile blue jays, European starlings, American robins and common grackles, though some species of songbirds have also been reported.

To help officials identify and track cases, an online reporting system went into effect on June 17. As of July 2, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife had received approximately 1,400 reports. Of those, only about 250 were related to the unexplained illness. The remainder of the reports were considered normal mortalities, inconclusive or lacked sufficient information.

“There’s baseline mortality that’s being reported,” KFW wildlife veterinarian Dr. Christine Casey said during a July 2 press conference. “That’s because we put out this call, ‘Everybody keep an eye out for bird mortality,’ and with that, people are going to report normal mortality. The other thing, when I say crusty eyes, I am an expert in veterinary medicine and pathology and I deal with a lot of dead animals so I’m aware of what normal looks like, so normal physiology versus abnormal, and I would say people may see an eye and they’re not used to looking at a dead animal. It’s a completely normal part of decomposition but they might report it as a clinical sign so that’s why I’ve had to go through every single report to see what’s actually related to this versus doesn’t really look like it at all.” 

Casey said the 250 reports is consistent with the other affected states. The differences in reports across the nine states may be due to the different reporting systems being used to track cases, she said.

“When we open up an online reporting system to the entire state, you’re going to get more reports,” Casey said.

Currently, six counties in Kentucky have been asked to take down bird feeders after an examination of data showed multiple reports from those areas. The counties include Jefferson, Kenton, Boone, Bullitt, Campbell and Madison. 

“Certainly this is just a precaution,” Casey said. “We don’t have any updates in terms of what is actually causing this, but at the time, we recommend as a precautionary step taking down the feeders because feeders do congregate animals and can increase the transmission of pathogens in general, so it’s a possibility that it could be spreading that way. We just want to cover all our bases. So certainly, if you’re in a neighboring county, you can take down your bird feeder if you feel it necessary.”

For counties not listed, such as Scott County, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife detailed other safety precautions to follow. The precautions include cleaning feeders and birdbaths with a 10% bleach solution, avoiding handling dead birds and keeping pets away from sick or wild birds. If an individual must handle a dead bird, wearing gloves and picking up the bird with an inverted plastic bag is suggested.

Casey said the risk of humans contracting the illness is low.

“There’s been no reports of human health issues or illness related to this,” she said. “Right now, it’s unlikely that it’s impacting humans or other domestic animals, which is kind of consistent with disease principles in general.”

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife has sent about 40 samples to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia for lab testing, but results are still pending.

What has been most helpful is pictures attached to reports. Casey said it has helped her determine the severity of the case and if the case is related to the illness. 

“The pictures have been worth a thousand words,” she said. “Some people have gotten these amazing photos of blue jays with very crusty eyes, like it’s very clear that is what we’re looking for. Other times, I think people have a different concept of what fresh is. If an animal has been out there for, in this type of heat, more than 24 hours, it really decomposes very quickly. All the little insects and other critters out there get it. What’s a bummer about that is you lose diagnostic viability as it goes on.”

Since Kentucky is one of nine states experiencing this illness, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife collaborated with several states to draft a multi-state response that detailed a list of pathogens, viruses and diseases that were not detected in tests as of July 2. The list includes Salmonella and Chlamydia (bacterial pathogens); avian influenza virus, West Nile virus and other flaviviruses, Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses, herpesviruses and poxviruses; and Trichomonas parasites, according to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. 

“There’s still ongoing diagnostics,” Casey said. “We do microbiology, virology, parasitology, toxicology, so there’s still multiple diagnostics being performed on these tissues, but I think we’ve come further that we were originally. 

“I understand, at least from the public’s perspective, how frustrating it is not to have these answers and we’d like to provide some information so people can start to rest at ease that we’ve looked into this and we’re trying our best.”

To report sick or dead birds, use the online reporting system at fw.ky.gov. 

Further updates and information will be posted on the website as well.

Recommended for you