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Cori Brown: Unidentified illness affecting birds is a true mystery | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

As if COVID hasn’t been enough, it seems science is taking on another challenge with a mysterious and yet to be unidentified illness in birds. It started in Washington, D.C. in April and has now spread to a number of East coast states as well as the Midwest.

Symptoms in birds include crusty eyes, blindness, neurological damage (leaving the birds unable to walk or fly) and even death. The affliction appears to affect many young birds including blue jays, hawks, robins, grackles and starlings.

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I’ve been following this illness in the news and on social media. It has touched off a firestorm of controversy. This has been going on for several months now with no indication of what the illness is or how to treat it.

In the meantime, numerous prominent organizations, including Audubon Society, recommend that people stop feeding wild birds and providing water to them. The theory is that congregating birds may pass on the illness, thereby spreading it unknowingly and putting more birds at risk (does this sound familiar?).

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Most people don’t feed birds in the summer because there is already plenty out there for them eat. I am one of those who do, though I cut back the number of feeders I put out from nine to three (not counting the hummingbird feeders).

It’s a frivolous and perhaps selfish pursuit on my part, but I love to see birds up close all year round. It gives me the chance to see some special migratory birds who are often just passing through. It also gives me the opportunity to pursue my nature photography hobby.

Now, though, instead of them coming to me, I am going to them. I walk or ride the golf cart around our property at least three times a day (the heat and humidity have made me lazy, hence the golf cart). There is no doubt that spotting them is a lot more difficult, especially in our small forested area. I would be out there anyway, looking for other wildlife as well as insect eating birds, but I do miss the creature comfort of just sitting by the window in an air-conditioned room watching them.

What has so many people upset, though, is a lack of information about what is going on. Feeding birds is a great pastime enjoyed by millions of people. It is a simple pleasure that anyone can do. It brings a lot of joy to people to see and hear the birds so up close and personal at feeders every day.

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Scientists are working to identify a mysterious illness that is affecting birds like blue jays, robins, grackles and other songbirds.
Scientists are working to identify a mysterious illness that is affecting birds like blue jays, robins, grackles and other songbirds. (Cori Brown)

With a lot more questions than answers, people are getting frustrated at the perceived lack of candor and clarity on the part of scientists looking for answers. Where are the hot spots? If I don’t see symptomatic birds in my own yard, do I really have a problem? What has and what has not been eliminated as possible causes of the illness? How is it spread? The questions go on and on.

Social media is adding fuel to the fire. Though thoughtful and rational discussion is the preferred path to follow, invariably in conversation threads that I’ve read, many comments devolve into personal attacks and conspiracy theories. Sadly, this is a well-trodden path as we recently witnessed with COVID (and continue to witness in various media forums).

It is so discouraging to see this happening. I have no doubt that the professionals working this issue want to get it right the first time and not have to backtrack or retract what they say.

In a world where science seems to be on trial every day, we can’t afford snap judgments or conclusions. I love feeding birds. They are like family to me. However, I will gladly forgo feeding them for now in exchange for thoroughly vetted research that will give us answers and save hundreds, if not thousands of birds’ lives. That is what good science is and does.

If there is anything I’ve learned about birding, it is that patience is a virtue that comes with great rewards. Many times, I’ve spent hours looking for a single bird and when I find it, it is so exhilarating. Let’s apply some of that same patience to the experts who are working tirelessly to get us to the bottom of this terrible disease, whatever it is, and save the lives of our humble backyard birds.

If you see a sick bird or find a dead one, take photos, and make note of its symptoms and location. Then report it to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s online portal. Local rehabilitators are also taking in sick birds.

It’s not all bad news on the bird front. Like social media, technology is a double-edged sword that can be used for good, too. The newest tool in the box is an app called Merlin Sound ID and is the creation of Cornell Lab of Ornithology (one of my favorite organizations).

If you’ve never heard of Merlin, it is a birding app you can download for free on your smartphone. It helps you identify in real time hundreds of birds through photos and songs/calls. The Lab recently added a new sound feature that allows you to press a button and record live what you are hearing. As it listens to the birds, it pops up possible matches from its extensive Macaulay library of audio recordings.

I was a bit skeptical at first, but it really works. I already recognize many bird songs and calls, but there are times when I have no idea what I am hearing. This app helps me narrow down potential candidates to look for and validates what I am already seeing, too.

Who knows what’s next in the avian techie/gadget pipeline? I am waiting for the day when binoculars will have all of these neat tools built in to them and will also find the birds for you. Wouldn’t that be something?

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