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More than 1,000 Cases of Mysterious Bird Disease Reported In Pennsylvania

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Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Reported cases of a mysterious disease affecting songbirds in the region spiked during the July 4 weekend, researchers say.

Scott Weber, the senior research investigator for the University of Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program, told WESA’s The Confluence that when the Pennsylvania Game Commission first alerted the public to the issue in early July, there were 70 potential cases reported in the state. During the holiday weekend, the Wildlife Futures Program received reports of more than 1,000 potential cases across 61 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Although the program has yet to confirm all of these cases, Weber said wildlife vets are concerned.

“It’s a large, significant influx of cases in just a relatively short amount of time,” he said.

The disease was first observed in songbirds in May in the Washington, D.C. area, and it quickly spread to surrounding states. Weber said it mostly affects young birds still in the nest and fledglings who recently left. Birds who show symptoms of the disease may have crusty eyes or eye discharge, or neurological signs such as head tremors and difficulty standing.

According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 12 species of birds have been affected by the disease, including the blue jay, American robin and red-bellied woodpecker.

Weber said the disease is alarming in part because it affects large numbers of different species of birds across multiple areas of the country.

“It is a fast jump, and it does seem to be spreading through the U.S. pretty quickly, and spreading to a fairly wide geographical area,” he said, noting that cases have also been identified in parts of the Midwest.

As researchers work to find the cause of the disease, Weber recommended that Pennsylvanians remove bird feeders and bird baths from their yards until further notice and disinfect them, as recommended by the Game Commission earlier this month.

“We don’t know what this is yet, but as a precaution — in case this is something contagious that can go to other birds and other wildlife — this is just a way to prevent animals from congregating in large numbers where they can easily pass disease to each other,” Weber said.

Researchers have not found evidence that the disease can pass to non-bird species.

“I think the most important thing the public can do is to be vigilant, to look at what’s in their backyard,” Weber said, and report any potential cases they see to the Wildlife Futures Program.

Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.
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