Update Aug 1: Mysterious Bird Illness is Fading Away

American robin fledgling in DC (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

UPDATE 13 Aug 2021: The PA Game Commission has announced an end to bird feeding restrictions. The illness has faded away on its own.

1 August 2021

A few days ago there was hopeful news from Audubon Society of Western PA about the mysterious deaths of songbirds, especially fledglings, in 11 states and DC. The mysterious illness is fading away.

Cornell Wildlife Health Lab at Cornell University has even better news:

As the mysterious illness killing birds lessens, scientists at the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab believe the cause may have been the recent cicada eruption.

Cornell experts not overly alarmed by mysterious songbird sickness, Ithaca Times, 28 July 2021

Cornell’s cicada hypothesis is based on data from the National Wildlife Health Center and the consortium of wildlife agencies investigating the mysterious deaths, summarized here from the Ithaca Times article:

  • The illness appeared about a week after the Brood X cicadas emerged in mid-May.
  • The geographic distribution of the illness matches the Brood X map, including its non-contiguous nature, yellow on the map below.
  • The illness did not spread to nearby states that did not have Brood X cicadas.
  • The illness waned as the cicadas died off and dropped precipitously after the cicadas disappeared.
Active periodical cicada broods in U.S. (2013 map from USGS via Wikimedia Commons)

This is great news for western Pennsylvania. We do not have Brood X cicadas, instead we have Broods V and VIII, the last of which appeared in the Pittsburgh area as Brood VIII in 2019. It will be 12 to 15 years before they re-emerge: Brood V in 2033 and Brood VIII in 2036. If the problem was caused by magicicadas we’re off the hook in Pittsburgh for a very long time.

Brood V Magicicada in Pittsburgh, 30 May 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nature doesn’t follow state lines and political boundaries but state agencies have to. Thus all of Pennsylvania was told to stop feeding birds until scientists learned more about the mysterious bird deaths. Scientists are getting close to an answer and soon (I hope!) we’ll be able to feed birds again.

Read more about the cicada connection at Cornell experts are not overly alarmed by mysterious songbird sickness, Ithaca Times, 28 July 2021.

Learn about the white fungus that infects the cicadas at Cicadas face bizarre “death zombie” fungus that eats away at their butts, CNET, 24 May 2021.

(robin photo and map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals). Magicicada photo by Kate St. John)

8 thoughts on “Update Aug 1: Mysterious Bird Illness is Fading Away

    1. Kristin, I think it depends on where you live. Certainly wait for word from your state agency if you’re in the Brood X cicada zone.

  1. Thanks so much for the update. I was just wondering about what was happening. So glad we may be able to fill our feeders in a few weeks.

    1. Gina, yes, the fungus might be infecting birds. I imagine the scientists are looking into it.

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