A beautiful voice: The beautiful voice of the summer tanager has been rare this summer; a mysterious disease, yet to be identified, is killing songbirds in a dozen states. Photo by Mike Lunsford
A beautiful voice: The beautiful voice of the summer tanager has been rare this summer; a mysterious disease, yet to be identified, is killing songbirds in a dozen states. Photo by Mike Lunsford
It is uncharacteristically quiet this morning, yet my window is open and only a light breeze is moving the dark green leaves of the yellow poplar just outside. I have heard no birdsong today, just the persistent and loud chatter of a Carolina wren that has taken possession of a back deck spider plant.

Weeks ago just about all I could hear by mid-morning was the monotonous drone of the cicadas, those rare Brood X visitors that I grew tired of soon after they emerged from their grassy tombs. As I wrote about a while ago, their cycles have been blamed for “interruptions” in bird populations, so when many of our songbirds disappeared — about the time the creepy cicadas were crawling my trees in June — I wasn’t that concerned. I am now, though.

We are being told that a mysterious illness is spreading among songbirds in Indiana; the infection has been witnessed in nearly a dozen other states too, and although there are those who are still blaming the cicadas and the aberrations in nature that they seem to create, we suspect that something else is wrong.

Brad Bumgardner, executive director of the Indiana Audubon Society, says his office has been “bombarded” by questions about the bird dilemma and says, “Without more testing, it’s simply speculation, but it does appear to be spreading with birds, and beyond feeder birds.”

Bumgardner says the illness is a real, not imagined, cause for alarm. “My biggest concern is if we start documenting it in larger birds, such as hawks and owls. These birds have lower breeding rates, just one or two eggs a year, so a hit to their populations will take longer to rebound,” he adds.

Right now, however, it seems as though songbirds seem to be taking the brunt of the illness’s impact, with robins, grackles, cardinals, blue jays, starlings, and cowbirds being the most affected. The DNR says that although it is unsure what the illness is, it does know that it isn’t West Nile virus and a whole host of other viruses, including avian influenza. Symptoms of sick birds include tremors and weakness, and some birds have swelling or discharge around the eyes.

The concern runs so deep that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) advises birders to take down and clean their feeders with a mild bleach solution, their bird baths too, then leave them down. We have done that, and our hummingbirds, less numerous this year than in previous seasons, still hover about our house, looking in windows, begging, it seems, for their sugar water. We haven’t relented though, so we are seeing them go after our abundance of blooming hostas and geraniums. We wish them well.

Although we feel good about filling the feeders each morning, it really isn’t necessary during this time of year; most birds make up for losing their daily doses of sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and suet by eating insects and foraging; even the finches can go without their precious nyjer seed. I have seen a few of them already tugging on green sunflower heads.

Bumgardner has strong doubts about any connection to cicadas. “An article came out that suggested a correlation between the timing with cicadas, but a correlation is not causation. Most folks don’t understand the difference between the two, leading people, and the media, to try to link them. We have no evidence that the cicadas are involved. There is data that suggests it was documented before the cicadas, and reports in Lake and Porter counties run counter, as the Brood X was not generally in those counties this year. Continued testing will help us eliminate what it’s not,” Bumgardner says.

Dobbs Park naturalist, Carissa Lovett agrees. “I don’t think the cicadas themselves are the issue,” Lovett says. “I kind of think that the mass hysteria that people had about them may have been a contributing issue. I believe people sprayed their lawns more this year to try to get rid of the cicadas, even though they are very benign.”

Those chemicals, however, couldn’t have been good for bird populations. Lovett says that she has seen no bird deaths at the Nature Center so far, yet she has complied with the DNR by removing the numerous feeders from her feeding station windows, feeders that up until just a few weeks ago were teeming with finches, cardinals, bluebirds and jays.

Scientists will have the final say on what has happened to the birds. Bumgardner said that the last disease that caused this sort of concern was the West Nile that hit crows and jays particularly hard, but spread to birds of prey too; the worst outbreak came in 2002.

I also asked Kurt Lanzone, the Ag-Natural Resources Educator in Parke County what he thought about the illness; he doesn’t feel it is related to cicadas either and directed me to the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. In a recent press release, the Institute says, “Testing of specimens has shown that many of the birds have an infection caused by a bacteria called Mycoplasma. Disease caused by Mycoplasma can be highly transmissible and has been a problem for birds in the past. For example, house finch populations were especially hard hit by a Mycoplasma outbreak that began in the 1990s. The neurologic symptoms associated with this mortality event, however, are not entirely consistent with Mycoplasma infection. There is something else going on.”

What that “something else” is, we don’t know yet, but I expect scientists will find an answer. Often, however, it is the poet or the essayist that gets us to appreciate better what scientific data verifies.

In her poem, “In Our Woods, Sometimes a Rare Music,” Mary Oliver suggests that if we heard the sounds of singing birds—in her case, a thrush — every day, all day, we wouldn’t appreciate them so much. “Not enough is a poor life,” she says, “But too much, is, well too much.”

Right now, I feel we are living poorly.
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