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‘Terribly scary’ situation as birds die, go blind in D.C. area

This is a healthy juvenile Common Grackle. Birds of this species and others are becoming ill and dying in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Photo by David Mundy

Editor’s note, June 11: Today we published an update to the story below. Read it here.

In the last 10 days, people in the Washington, D.C., metro area have been reporting increasing numbers of sick, blind, injured, and dead birds. For the most part, they have been juvenile Common Grackles, European Starlings, 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,” said the Animal Welfare League of Arlington in a statement. “Animal Control is now seeing additional species of birds affected. Other agencies and localities across the region and state are reporting similar issues.”

blind
A Blue Jay with severe eye problems is shown in this photo by City Wildlife.

City Wildlife, a wildlife rehab nonprofit in Washington, said on its blog that the eye issues lead to “blindness and neurological problems affecting the birds’ balance and coordination. Other regional agencies are reporting the same, as well as many dead fledglings.

“City Wildlife and other agencies in surrounding states have submitted samples to appropriate pathology laboratories and are awaiting results of those tests. As the first and only Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for the District of Columbia, we take this matter very seriously and, in coordination with other governmental and wildlife rehabilitation centers, are making every effort to mount an effective response to this avian emergency.”

Jim Monsma, the executive director of City Wildlife, told the Washington Post:

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“It’s terribly scary. 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.”

The Post also shared social media posts from the public about dead and dying birds:

“Dead birds?!” reads a post on the Nextdoor social network site. “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 neighbors have also reported dead birds over the last week or so.”

What follows are more than 145 comments, all from people in the Washington region. Many contain descriptions of disturbing avian encounters that have happened in recent weeks.

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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.

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. 

I have one sick grackle in my yard now, walking around slowly and seems to be blind in one eye.

Some people commenting on Facebook and elsewhere speculate that people are spraying chemicals to deal with the current cicada emergence and that may be impacting the birds. There is absolutely no reason to spray cicadas, as the Animal Welfare League of Arlington said on Twitter:

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For now, we wait to learn what is happening to the region’s birds.

Editor’s note, June 11: Today we published an update to the story below. Read it here.

Originally Published

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