If you see an odd and ugly bird like this northern cardinal don’t worry that he’s ill. He isn’t sick. He’s just temporarily bald.
Many birds molt in the summer when they’ve finished breeding and food is plentiful. Warm weather is the perfect time to lose worn out feathers, a few at a time, and grow in new ones. Some northern cardinals and blue jays however lose all their head feathers simultaneously and become bald for about a week. This happens so often among blue jays in North Carolina that it’s considered normal there.
Birds also go temporarily bald during the molt if they have feather mites on their heads. Lose all the head feathers and lose the mites, too.
Bald birds are ugly, though. Their ears are just holes near their eyes, their heads look small, and their skin doesn’t match the missing feathers. Nonetheless, it’s temporary.
So don’t worry if you see a bird like this one in the video. He’s not sick. He’s just bald.
(photo of bald northern cardinal photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)
Symptoms of the illness include a discharge and/or crusting around the eyes, eye lesions, and/or neurologic signs such as falling over or head tremors. Infected birds always die. Scientists are investigating but still don’t know what’s causing it.
The disease has been reported in 27 Pennsylvania counties in these species: blue jays, European starlings, common grackles, American robins, northern cardinals, house finches, house sparrows, eastern bluebirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, and Carolina wrens. Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, DE has found that the disease primarily affects fledgling European starlings, blue jays, and common grackles.
Cease feeding birds and providing water in bird baths until this wildlife mortality event has concluded to prevent potential spread between birds and to other wildlife.
Clean feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution.
Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if it’s 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.
To underscore the point, Audubon Nature Stores will discontinue the sale of seed and bird feeders for the time being.
Do your part. Stop feeding birds until this wildlife crisis is over.
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UPDATE, 2 July 2021: The mysterious illness has now been reported in DC + eight states: VA, WV, MD, PA, DE, IN, OH, KY and more closely matches the Brood X cicada map though this may be a coincidence. My revised attempt at mapping the bird death hotspots, below, is just a rough idea not the whole story. i.e. Do not rely on my map!
UPDATE from PA Game Commission, 8 July 2021 (posted here on 21 July): As of 8 July 2021 Wildlife Futures received 1,525 reports of dead birds in Pennsylvania. Roughly 25-30% (approximately 500) are likely associated with the current songbird mortality event. To date, the morbidity/mortality event appears to be targeting fledgling common grackles, blue jays, European starlings, and American robins. So far the following pathogens have been ruled out: Salmonella, Chlamydia, avian influenza virus, West Nile virus, Newcastle disease virus, herpesviruses, poxviruses, and Trichomonas parasite.
(photo from NPS via DNREC, maps from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)
A mysterious illness, first recorded in the DC area in mid April 2021, is blinding and killing songbirds in six states. Scientists at many labs are investigating but there are still no answers. No one knows what’s causing it.
Symptoms include crusted-over eyes, blindness, seizures, loss of balance, and death within a day. Indiana DNR reports that the illness mostly affects medium-sized songbirds: blue jays, American robins (photo at top), common grackles (photo below), starlings, northern cardinals, and brown-headed cowbirds.
So far the disease has been reported in the DC area including Virginia, Maryland, and the eastern panhandle of WV, and in central and southwestern Ohio, parts of Indiana, and north-central Kentucky. My attempt to map the disease centers, below, is missing many incidents outside the red dots. UPDATE, 2 July 2021: The illness is also in PA and Delaware, now in 8 states, shown below.
Residents in affected areas are asked to take their feeders down so that birds do not congregate. There are good reasons to do so …
Megan Kirchgessner, a veterinarian with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, said “From a veterinary perspective, especially in the springtime when food is abundant, there’s no reason for those feeders to be out,” she said. “And to be perfectly honest, especially in a situation like this, they can do more harm than good.”
Though no one knows what’s causing the illness, avian flu and West Nile virus have been ruled out.
Some, including an ornithologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, have speculated the illness is related to the Brood X cicada emergence (yellow on the map below), that the birds are consuming pesticide-laden or fungus-laden cicadas. If so, the disease will disappear in July when the cicadas do and will not return for 17 years.
The cicada connection occurred to me too. The disease map as of 1 July 2021, after PA and Delaware were added, more closely matches the Brood X map.
For now we wait for more information and pray the illness doesn’t spread.
(embedded photos from Facebook and Twitter, maps from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)
In early summer Pittsburgh birders tire of searching among dense leaves so we travel to Clarion County’s recovered strip mines for grassland birds. Yesterday five of us drove 90 minutes to look for open country birds we’ve found there in the past.
Dickcissels (Spiza americana) are back again this year and easy to find singing on the wires at Concord Church Road. These rare nomads were a Life Bird for me in 2012. Read this vintage article, Dickcissels, for the reason why they to come to western Pennsylvania.
This year’s weather has made for a lackluster spring migration season in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was suddenly warm in late April then surprisingly cold in the second week of May. During the cold spell migrating birds avoided us by traveling along the Atlantic coast or up the Mississippi valley and Great Plains.
Their absence here was noticeable. Other than one spectacular birding day on 6 May the rest of the month has had a good mix of species but few individual birds. I find it bizarre to spend three hours birding in mid May and see/hear just one American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) or one Tennessee warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina).
But there have been rewards. Last week in Frick Park Charity Kheshgi found a couple of gray-cheeked thrushes and two mourning warblers on two different days. One gray-cheeked thrush perched in the open.
The mourning warblers remained in the shadows. Scroll right to see his eye shine in the third photo.
Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are the blackbird we love to hate.
Well known as a brood parasite, the female cowbird lays her eggs in the nests of smaller birds. The hosts foster her eggs and chicks while their own nestlings die. It’s particularly sad when we see a warbler feeding a cowbird chick knowing that his own nestlings did not survive.
Every once in a while we find a very unusual bird that defies identification.
This one was filmed by pacificnorthwestkate (@pnwkate) at the Delta in Vancouver, BC, Canada on Thursday 6 May 2021. Its chest and belly look like an eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) but its shape, beak, voice and behavior are like a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). The final clue is that he hangs out in marshes with red-winged blackbirds.
As you watch him move and hear him sing you know who he is.
Early May is exciting for Pittsburgh birders as beautiful migratory songbirds arrive in our area. Some come from as far away as South America and are en route to northern Canada. Some stay to nest, others move on. What map are they using? How do they get here?
Much of migration remains a mystery. This list is just a summary of the high points. If you have more to add, please leave a comment!
Basic Onboard Navigation System:
Migratory birds are born with a basic navigation system that improves with experience. First-of-year birds fly south in the fall with these instructions: Fly in [this] direction for [this] long.
Those born with a faulty compass head the wrong way and end up on Rare Bird Alerts.
My Life Bird lark sparrow was found at Seal Harbor, Maine. Though usually a western bird, he flew east instead of south.
After a bird has made the trip just once, it remembers the route and retraces it year after year. The lark sparrow in Seal Harbor showed up every September for the typical life span of a lark sparrow. His compass error didn’t hurt him.
Birds can be thrown off course by bad weather but they have additional navigational aids.
Orienting by polarized light at sunrise and sunset:
Before 2006 scientists knew that birds orient themselves at sunset. Then they learned how.
Researchers from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Lund University in Sweden say experiments with savannah sparrows in Alaska show the birds take readings of polarized sunlight at sunrise and sunset and use them to periodically recalibrate their magnetic compasses.
Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Baltimore oriole, Frick Park, 1 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Chipping sparrow, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Great-crested flycatcher, Frick Park, 28 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Northern flicker, Frick Park, 23 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Blackburnian warbler, Frick Park, 28 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Purple finch, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Yellow-rumped warbler, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Rose-breasted grosbeak, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Red-winged blackbird, Frick Park, 23 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Mallard and spotted sandpiper, Duck Hollow, 30 April 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
Barred owl, Frick Park, 2 May 2021 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
2 May 2021
Frick Park and adjacent Duck Hollow are two of the hottest birding hotspots in southwestern Pennsylvania. So many birds show up during spring migration that we birders spend hours there in April and May.
Frick’s 644 forested acres are a green oasis halfway through Pittsburgh’s developed metro area. The Monongahela River at Duck Hollow beacons to water and shorebirds while the woods attract songbirds to refuel before continuing north.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy map of Frick Park shows how Duck Hollow (furthest point south) connects to the larger park. The birding is so good in that corridor that I often walk from Duck to Frick. If the two locations were a single hotspot their combined species count would probably surpass 200. Click here to download the Frick Park map.
Charity Kheshgi photographs birds at Frick Park and/or Duck Hollow nearly every day. Her slideshow above includes a few of the birds she saw on the cusp of May. See more by following her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/charitykheshgi/
p.s. I was there for the Blackburnian warbler but missed the barred owl because I didn’t visit Frick on 2 May. So many birds, so little time!