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Then the Birds Began to Die

The Atlantic: “I carried on for more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, but I didn’t see the next plague coming…. David Curson, the director of bird conservation for Audubon Mid-Atlantic, told me that the earliest reports of the mysterious deaths had reached local authorities in late April, sparking investigations across the region. Researchers at the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Geological Survey, and several state wildlife agencies have all rushed to study infected and dead birds to pinpoint a specific cause of the illness, but so far, the responsible pathogen remains unknown. “Really there’s two symptoms,” Curson told me. “One is that these birds’ eyes are crusty, so they’re showing signs of infection around their eyes. And then there’s neurological symptoms, twitching body parts of the bird, or the whole bird twitching or showing lethargy or disorientation … And then of course, eventually they’re dying.” Epidemics among birds are common. “Diseases circulate in wildlife populations regularly,” Curson said, “and there’s a lot of different diseases that influence birds … It’s no reason to panic just because there’s a disease in a bird population.” The alarming thing, he said, is that this sickness is yet unidentified, and that the birds themselves are so familiar. Grackles, starlings, jays, and robins are all among the more identifiable and robust birds that gather at our feeders, each with their distinctive plumage—blue or red or oil-slick starlight or iridescent peacock-teal shading into bronze. All of them are on the larger side for songbirds, closer to the two cupped handfuls of a mourning dove than the scant palmful of a house finch. When you find them, in other words, you notice them…”

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