Bird lovers in southeastern Pennsylvania are being advised to take down their feeders and close their birdbaths to stop the spread of a mysterious disease that is killing songbirds.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission announced Thursday that scientists from its Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System are investigating more than 70 reports of songbirds that are sick or dying due to an emerging health condition with an unknown cause.

Penn Vet said on its website that the reports chronicle both adult and young birds exhibiting signs of the condition. The most common clinical symptoms include discharge or crusting around the eyes, eye lesions, or neurologic signs such as falling over or head tremors.

Affected birds are being tested for several toxins, parasites, bacterial diseases and viral infections. 

“They’ve been testing and right now there is nothing conclusive about what is causing this," said David Barber, senior research for Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, on Friday at the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning in West Brunswick Township, Schuylkill County.

Peggy Hentz, director of Red Creek Wildlife Center in Wayne Township, Schuylkill County, said Friday that the rehabilitation center received one blue jay from York County exhibiting the symptoms in early June.

The bird died and was discarded before the Game Commission alerted the center to be on the lookout for affected birds.

"The Game Commission is taking this very seriously," Hentz said. "A couple of weeks ago they asked us to save any possible specimens for testing."

Neither Hentz nor Barber have heard of any cases in Berks County.

Where is it occurring?

In Pennsylvania, the reports have been received from 27 counties, including 15 from Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties and 19 from Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry, Schuylkill and York counties.

Penn Vet and the Game Commission said numerous reports have come in from the Mid-Atlantic region, extending into the Southeast and eastern upper Midwest.

Affected birds were first reported in and around Washington D.C. in the early spring.

Cases have also been reported in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Indiana, Ohio and Florida.

What species?

These species have been reported: blue jay, European starling, common grackle, American robin, northern cardinal, house finch, house sparrow, eastern bluebird, red-bellied woodpecker, Carolina chickadee and Carolina wren.

"They are birds you would typically find at your feeders, but some aren’t," Barber said, noting there have been no cases in raptors. "Some are resident birds, some are short-distance migrants. It’s covering a wide range."

What about feeders, birdbaths?

Experts say that closing feeders where birds congregate might prevent the disease from spreading. Penn Vet and the game commission said to cease feeding birds until the "wildlife mortality event is concluded." 

Hentz said that people often do not see the consequences of the unnatural gathering of animals to eat at a common site.

"At the center we've always counseled against feeding wildlife," she said.

Barber said hummingbird feeders should be taken down too, even though no cases have been reported in that species.

"Again, it is a concentration of birds,” he said.

Barber said that is why birdbaths should be emptied, too.

Clean feeders and birdbaths with a 10% bleach solution.

What other precautions?

• Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if necessary to handle a bird.

• Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.

• To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard with household trash. This will prevent disease transmission to other birds and wildlife.

What else?

The public is encouraged to report birds that have died or that have been seen with swollen and crusty eyes, as well as neurological signs such as stumbling and head tremors. Report the incident online at: https://bit.ly/PABirdReport.

Updates will be posted at: https://www.vet.upenn.edu/about/news-room

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