Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources has received hundreds of reports over the last week of a mysterious illness affecting songbirds in Northern and Central Kentucky.
Wildlife agencies first identified the illness in late May and have since received reports of it spreading in at least six states and Washington D.C. So far experts are stumped as to the cause, and awaiting the results from lab testing.
“Basically, in our meeting, it was like, ‘What is everybody seeing?’ and we haven’t come up with one definitive answer and so we are exploring all possibilities,” said Dr. Christine Casey, wildlife veterinarian with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
Last week Kentucky wildlife officials asked residents in Jefferson, Boone and Kenton counties to take down bird feeders until further notice to help curb the spread. They also opened an online reporting tool that has since received around 700 reports of sick and dying birds, mostly in Central and Northern Kentucky. Officials are now sorting through those reports.
Casey says that the reports indicate blue jays, common grackles and European starlings are the most commonly affected. Juveniles are affected more often than adults, and there’s no indication the disease has spread to livestock like chickens.
The sick birds often appear with swollen, crusty eyes and neurologic problems that make them appear uncoordinated, or leave them staring into the sky, Casey said.
Wildlife officials in Kentucky have sent more than 20 carcasses to the University of Georgia — one of at least three labs investigating the illness — but it could be a month before the results come back.
The typical turnaround time is four to six weeks to run diagnostic tests, and additional testing, like running toxicology on the birds, could be necessary and take even longer, Casey said.
One theory is that the illness might be connected to this year’s emergence of Brood X cicadas. Casey said wildlife officials in both Kentucky and Virginia have submitted cicadas found near dead birds for testing.
“At this point, I mean, all possibilities are being explored. There’s been weirder things that have happened so we don’t want to ignore something that could be a possibility,” Casey said.
The illness appears to be distinct from the salmonella outbreaks that occurred earlier this year.
Residents outside of Jefferson, Kenton and Boone counties can continue to feed birds but should clean their feeders with a 10% bleach solution immediately, and once a week or so thereafter. They should also avoid handling wild birds and keep pets away from any sick or dying ones.
Wildlife agencies have also identified outbreaks in Indiana, West Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and Washington D.C.