Birds on a wire (copy)

Delaware wildlife officials are asking the public to remove birdbaths and birdfeeders to help control an unknown cause of songbird deaths in Delaware and elsewhere in the region.

The self-titled “Bird Lady” of Ocean View has seen more people interested in birds as the COVID-19 pandemic kept people home, but in recent days, she has found herself in the difficult position of urging them not to feed their feathered friends.

Last week, DNREC issued a warning asking Delawareans not to feed wild birds because of reports of sick and dead birds found in the state.

The announcement came as several other states had issued similar warnings, including at least five Mid-Atlantic and Central states. Grackles, bluejays and starlings were the birds most commonly seen with the ailment, characterized by “swollen eyes with crusty discharge, as well as neurological signs, such as erratic flight and stumbling,” DNREC said.

Connie Marshall, owner of the Wild About Birds store in Ocean View, said she has received “a lot of phone calls” from bird enthusiasts concerned about the announcement. Although not everyone coming into her store seems to have heard the news, she said, “I will bring it up nine times out of 10,” telling customers, “I feel like I need to tell you this.”

“Most people are not aware,” she said. “I tell them to go to the DNREC website,” for the latest information.

The ailment seems to be affecting juvenile birds more than adults, DNREC said.

“Investigating agencies including DNREC are working cooperatively with animal health laboratories to find what’s behind this event, with Delaware’s samples sent to the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory in New Bolton, Pa., but no definitive cause has been identified to date,” last week’s announcement said.

At that time, more than 50 dead birds had been reported. Marshall said she had not seen or heard of any dead birds in the local area as of early this week.

One theory being posited connects the ailment to the recent appearance of the Brood X cicada. Since the outbreak of the bird ailment seems to follow the locations of the cicadas, there is a possibility that birds became ill from eating cicadas that had been contaminated with pesticides in the ground.

DNREC is urging Delawareans to take down their feeders and stop feeding wild birds for the time being, since feeders encourage birds to congregate, which could help spread the disease.

Before reactivating their feeders, they should be cleaned thoroughly with hot, soapy water, followed by a soak or mist with a 10 percent solution of bleach and water. Feeders should be completely dry before refilling with seed.

Hummingbirds do not seem to be affected, so hummingbird feeders are OK to leave up, DNREC said.

Marshall said that, during the pandemic, she had seen a definite uptick in the number of people interested in feeding wild birds.

“Anything that was outdoor-oriented” seemed to find new popularity from the time the pandemic began, she said. “People were now working at home, watching nature’s TV,” she said. “It’s been there the whole time — we’ve just been too busy to sit down and watch it.”

She said that when she has spoken with customers this week, “The main thing I’m hearing is that people are holding off” feeding birds for the time being. “They’re disappointed, but they’re holding off” and abiding by DNREC’s recommendations, she said. Some have gone ahead and bought seed so they’ll be ready when the all-clear is given by DNREC, while “some have told me they’ll see me in a couple weeks,” Marshall said.

While the mystery bird illness and the DNREC announcement have put a damper on her business, Marshall said she feels it’s important that both she and her customers “do the right thing” while the ailment is being investigated.

In addition to removing feeders and birdbaths, DNREC recommends that people avoid handling wild birds and wear disposable gloves if they must handle them. Domestic pets should be kept away from sick and dead wild birds.

Anyone who sees a live wild bird exhibiting the symptoms described should contact Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research at (302) 737-9543. Additional information can be found at tristatebird.org. If residents find a dead wild bird they suspect displayed any of the symptoms, contact the DNREC Division of Fish & Wildlife at (302) 735-3600.

Staff Reporter

Kerin majored in journalism at Ohio University and has worked as an editor and reporter for monthly, daily and weekly publications in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Delaware since 1983. A native of Baltimore, Md., she has lived in Ocean View since 1996.