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Update: As 'Mystery' Bird Illness Continues, Tri-State May Put Bird Feeders Back Out With Precautions

blue jay sits on a tree branch
Mathew Schwartz
Updated: September 9, 2021 at 12:58 PM EDT
Good news for bird lovers: The Ohio Division of Wildlife says it's OK to put your bird feeders back out.

The agency recommends thoroughly cleaning feeders at least once a week with a bleach solution and to take down your feeder for a week if you notice sick or dead birds.

Officials still haven't figured out the cause of the 'mystery' illness that has killed thousands of songbirds. However, the state says new reports of sick or dead birds have slowed, adding the majority involved immature or fledgling birds and breeding season is now over.

People were asked to take down their feeders in late spring. Kentucky and Indiana said it was OK to resume filling feeders about two weeks ago.

This story was originally published on Aug. 20, 2021.

The cause of a "mystery" illness that has killed thousands of songbirds remains unknown. However, the Kentucky and Indiana departments of natural resources say it's OK to put your feeders back out. A spokesperson tells WVXU Ohio is expected to release new guidance soon.

Agencies in all three states say testing is ongoing to determine what's making birds sick. Wildlife agencies began getting reports in May of sick and dead songbirds with neurological signs, eye swelling and crusty discharge around the eyes. Blue jays, common grackles, European starlings, American robins and house sparrows appear to be the most affected.

"Transmission electron microscopy and additional diagnostic tests, including microbiology, virology, parasitology and toxicology are ongoing," the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources reports.

According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s avian disease experts have ruled out "avian influenza, West Nile virus, and other flaviviruses, Salmonella and Chlamydia (bacterial pathogens), Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses, herpesviruses and poxviruses and Trichomonas parasites."

In Ohio

As of August, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) reports the counties experiencing the most cases are: Brown, Butler, Clark, Clermont, Delaware, Franklin, Greene, Hamilton, Montgomery and Warren.

Dead birds should be reported to the Ohio Division of Wildlife using this form.

In Kentucky

"Kentucky Fish and Wildlife has received 2,300 reports of sick or dying birds to its online reporting system since the portal went live on June 17," the agency writes in an update. "The number of daily reports coming in has steadily declined since the end of June."

Kentucky issues a further warning that this is the time of year for reports of House Finch eye disease, which has similar symptoms, but the agency says it is not connected, nor unusual. If you observe sick house finches or goldfinches, take down your feeder and follow cleaning protocols.

"I've received several calls from concerned citizens noticing that birds in their yard are molting, or growing new feathers," says Kate Slankard, avian biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. "Please be assured that nearly all songbirds molt this time of year and this is completely normal."

In Indiana

Indiana says it has received more than 3,400 reports of sick or dead birds since asking Hoosiers to remove feeders earlier this summer. "Of these reports, DNR biologists confirmed more than 500 possible cases in 72 counties that involved a very specific set of clinical signs (crusty eyes, eye discharge, and/or neurological issues)," Indiana Division of Natural Resources states.

Counties most affected in Indiana include: Allen, Carroll, Hamilton, Hancock, Hendricks, Johnson, Lake, Marion, Monroe, Porter, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe and Whitley.

Hoosiers should report dead birds at this website.

Cleaning Protocols For Bird Feeders

  • Clean feeders and birdbaths weekly with a 10% bleach solution (one-part bleach mixed with nine parts water), rinse with water and allow to air dry;
  • Avoid handling birds unless necessary. If you do handle them, wear disposable gloves. If picking up a dead bird, place an inverted plastic bag over your hand to avoid direct contact with the bird;
  • Keep pets (including pet birds) away from sick or dead wild birds as a standard precaution.
  • If sick or dying birds are observed at any feeders or birdbaths, take them down for two weeks and clean them with a 10% bleach solution.
Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.