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Combating mysterious bird disease: Wildlife officials advise residents to clean feeders, baths

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Blue Jay

Blue Jays, common grackles, European starlings, American robins and house sparrows are among the species under attack by this ailment.

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COLUMBUS — The state's wildlife leaders have issued guidelines to residents to help stop the spread of a mysterious disease afflicting songbirds.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife has advised people to take down and clean bird feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution, especially if they are seeing dead or sick birds in the area.

Here are guidelines from the ODNR to help stop the spread of the bird disease in the state:

• Cease feeding birds until this wildlife mortality event has concluded.
• Clean feeders and birdbaths with a 10% bleach solution.
• Avoid handling birds, but wear disposable gloves if handling is necessary.
• Keep pets away from sick or dead birds.

Most of the state's bird deaths have been reported in southern and central Ohio; however, some reports have been made in Northeast Ohio.

ODNR officials said the primary species affected by the disease, which reportedly causes crusty eyes, blindness, neurological distress and sometimes death, are blue jays, common grackles, European starlings, American robins and house sparrows.

The mysterious illness was first reported in Washington, D.C. in late May. It has now been reported in Ohio and neighboring states, including Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Mansfield's Ohio Bird Sanctuary, earlier in June, issued a warning to area residents who are transporting birds to the facility for treatment. The facility said to call ahead for special instructions to prevent spread of the disease.

ODNR is urging residents to contact the nearest licensed wildlife rehabilitator if there are sickened or dead birds in the area.

The OBS is a state-permitted wildlife rehabilitator for migratory birds and state and federally endangered avian species. Gail Laux, the facility's executive director, said it is the closest such facility that treats songbirds for residents in Knox, Ashland and Richland counties.

OBS' number is 419-884-4295. Residents can also call 1-800-WILDLIFE to report the sick or dying birds.

Residents can also submit a report online using ODNR's Wildlife Species Sighting reporting system. When reporting, select "Bird -- Diseased or Dead."

Laux said OBS has recently fielded a call from a resident reporting dead grackles in their backyard. 

"But it hasn't escalated in our area as we feared," she said, adding the facility has implemented biosecurity measures to make sure the disease does not spread in the facility.

She said experts are still unsure of how the disease spreads, but that ornithologists have ruled out a theory that pesticides used on cicadas is involved.

"It has nothing to do with cicadas," Laux said. "We know it's an infectious disease, we just haven't been able to narrow it down." 

She said ODNR's guidelines make sense. 

"In the wild, birds forage -- there's not a whole lot of interaction during feeding ... so if you're drawing birds in to a close proximity with a feeder, it's more likely for diseases to spread. So it's a good idea to not fill feeders for a while," she said, adding birds have plenty of food sources during the summer and they don't need as many calories in warmer weather.

"I know, it sounds a lot like social distancing with COVID, now we're implementing those rules on our little birds," she said.

This article originally ran on ashlandsource.com.

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