An unusual number of birds are suddenly going blind and dying in the area around Washington DC, puzzling wildlife experts.
DC resident Alexandra Dimsdale found a young grackle stumbling around outside her home on Saturday.
After taking it to City Wildlife, a rehabilitation centre in the northwest part of the capital, she told The Washington Post that a member of staff said there was nothing they could do. She learned that the bird probably had some kind of neurological illness, causing it to go blind.
“We can’t do anything for it, but we can put it out of its misery,” was the staffer’s verdict according to Ms Dimsdale.
The worker also told her that they had seen other birds with similar afflictions. An unusual number of blind birds have been found dead or dying in the area around Washington DC recently. Wildlife experts don’t know what’s behind it.
The Animal Welfare League in Arlington, Virginia just outside of DC have released a public service announcement about the spike in calls they have been getting about injured and sick young birds, mostly concerning grackles and blue jays.
“Eye issues were reported in what otherwise looked like healthy juvenile birds, causing blindness and the birds to land and stay on the ground,” the Animal Welfare League said. “Animal Control is now seeing additional species of birds affected. Other agencies and localities across the region and state are reporting similar issues at this time.”
The League is working with a biologist from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to perform tests on some of the dead birds, the announcement added.
It remains unclear whether what’s causing the deaths of the birds is contagious to, or caused by, humans.
A post on the site Nextdoor said: “Has anyone had a sudden increase of dead birds in their yard? We found one dying in our backyard a week ago, one dead in our front yard this week and our neighbours have also reported dead birds over the last week or so.”
Hundreds of comments were written on the post by people in the DC area.
“Just found a poor bird in front yard... Still alive, but not doing well. Head is extremely swollen and eyes are bulging. Possibly a young Mockingbird,” one comment said.
“A blue jay died in our yard a few weeks ago. It was acting strangely, like it couldn’t move its feet. It’s mate was trying to help — it was sad. My husband tried to pick it up with gloves, and it just suddenly died. We thought it had been poisoned because it had no wounds & seemed dazed and stiff,” another added.
Ms Dimsdale told The Post that the amount of dying birds has “surprised and alarmed” her.
“When something is happening on a large scale in nature, it’s frightening to think about,” she added. “I’m worried this is the canary in the coal mine.”
The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources told the paper that the majority of the reports they have received about the issue have come from Arlington, but they have also received notices from Maryland and the city of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley.
Megan Kirchgessner at the department told The Washington Post: “The volume of reports and clinical signs are not suggestive of something that we have seen routinely in this area, so we may be dealing with an emerging or novel issue.”
Online speculations say cicadas sprayed with pesticides which are then eaten by birds could be behind the problem.
The Animal Welfare League of Arlington tweeted: “DON’T use insecticide on cicadas! Remember that many animals, including birds, bats, dogs, and cats, eat cicadas and can get very sick if they ingest insecticide. Help us keep local animals safe and well – the cicadas won’t be here for that long, anyway!”
Megan Kirchgessner said testing is required to verify what the bird deaths are caused by but added that “pesticide use is on the differential list”.
“It’s terribly scary,” Jim Monsma, the executive director of City Wildlife told The Post. “It’s horrifying particularly because we don’t know what this is... We don’t know how to treat it. We don’t know how to save these birds.”