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We Still Don't Know Why 'Hundreds' Of IN Songbirds Are Mysteriously Getting Sick

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

A house sparrow. (Dean Morley/Flickr)

In late spring, a wildlife rehabilitator in Monroe County noticed songbirds displaying concerning symptoms: swollen, crusty eyes, tremors and odd behavior. Many of these birds appeared sick, and some died.

Now, hundreds of sick and dying birds with these same symptoms have been reported in more than 50 counties across the state. Indiana Department of Natural Resources officials say official reports are likely conservative compared to the actual number of afflicted birds.

And it’s not just Indiana – sickened birds have been reported as far east as Washington, D.C.

Officials are asking people statewide to take down their outdoor birdfeeders to help stop the spread of the mystery illness.

READ MORE: Indiana Researchers Working To Determine Cause Of Mysterious Illness In Songbirds

Indiana University post-doctoral candidate Daniel Becker researches infectious disease in wildlife. He compares the request to what humans had to do to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We're forcing social distancing on birds themselves, so to get 20, 30, 50 birds around your feeders on any given day, taking those feeders down will reduce the odds of a sick bird coming into contact with the uninfected bird," Becker said.

Testing has ruled out West Nile virus and avian flu, two common killers of birds.

Because scientists don’t yet know what the disease is, the State Board of Animal Health also has asked the owners of small poultry flocks – small farms and hobby bird owners – to watch their birds and enhance their biosecurity measures.

Indiana State Board of Animal Health spokesperson Denise Derrer says small flock poultry owners should take common sense precautions and limit their flocks' contact with outside birds and other animals.

“Change your clothes, change your shoes, have special boots you wear just to go out in the chicken area," she said. "If you have your birds out in an open area, bring them in at night, into the shed or the coop or barn. That way, they're not out at night and that will minimize some of the nighttime contact they may have."

Derrer says no reports indicate that the illness is spreading to poultry. But if it did, commercial poultry farms would face little risk because of their often-heightened disease precautions.

DNR officials say laboratory testing to determine the cause of the illness is ongoing.

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