Mystery illness: Ohio warns poultry farmers after songbird deaths

No evidence sickness has spread to domestic poultry flocks.

The state is urging poultry farmers to protect their flocks from a mysterious illness that has sickened and killed songbirds in five area Ohio counties and other states.

While there’s no evidence that the unknown disease has spread to Ohio’s poultry flocks, officials want to keep it that way.

“Prevention is the best strategy at this point,” said Dr. Dennis M. Summers, Ohio’s interim state veterinarian.

Last week, the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources encouraged hobby and backyard poultry owners to limit visitors to flocks, wash hands before and after contact with live poultry, and use disposable boot covers or disinfect boots after contact with flocks.

“Biosecurity refers to everything that owners do to keep diseases away from their flocks. It is an active effort that owners can practice every day,” Summers said.

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So far, the mystery disease has not affected the state’s poultry stock, said Jim Chakeres, executive vice president of the Ohio Poultry Association.

“There hasn’t been any crossover into domestic poultry that we’re aware of,” he said. “This is more of an alert for people to be aware and a reminder that biosecurity is one of the most important words in the poultry industry to protect our flocks, whether they be small or large, from any type of disease.”

The primary bird species affected by the illness are blue jays, common grackles, European starlings, American robins and house sparrows. Counties experiencing the bulk of the outbreak so far include Brown, Butler, Clark, Clermont, Delaware, Franklin, Greene, Hamilton, Montgomery and Warren counties, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

As early as April, the mystery disease landed in mid-Atlantic and southern states, according to a National Audubon Society report. By May, reports of sick and dying birds with eye swelling and crusty discharge, as well as neurological damage, were coming in from other states, including Ohio, according to the United States Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.

Dayton-area residents reported sick and dead songbirds in June.

One theory, that the sickness came about from birds eating Brood X cicadas, has neither been proven nor disproven. But bird illnesses also occurred in areas without cicada emergence and even where cicadas emerged, the mysterious bird deaths continued after cicadas were gone, according to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

“Presently, we are not sure what is causing these illnesses and deaths in songbirds,” Summers said. “We are communicating with ODNR to assist in the reporting of sick and dying birds. Laboratory testing is being conducted, but the cause has not yet been determined.”

To deter the yet-unidentified source of illness, ODNR continues to advise Ohioans to stop feeding wild birds and remove and clean bird feeders, particularly if they are seeing sick or dead birds in their area. The ODNR said it has received over 1,000 reports in its database that may be connected to the illness.

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Andrea Hancock said she hasn’t found any sick or dead songbirds in or around Happy Wife Acres near Fairborn, the farm where she and her husband John raise chickens, ducks, guineafowl and quail, selling the meat and eggs.

Hancock said the mystery illness is no more worrisome than myriad other sicknesses that continually threaten flocks like Newcastle disease or Marek’s disease.

“You have to expect the unexpected,” she said. “There’s just so many, so many things out there that could kill your chicken. You really have to be prepared for just about anything and things you never thought you could get.”

Chakeres said the Ohio Poultry Association is keeping tabs on the mystery songbird illness, much like it monitors for other diseases, including avian influenza.

“We are constantly watching the bird migration flyways that crossover with Europe and Asia about what they’re experiencing and what may be coming our way,” he said.

Summers said flock owners should immediately report unusual illnesses to their local veterinarian, cooperative extension service, or state veterinarian’s office at 614-728-6220. Reports can also be made to the USDA sick bird reporting line toll free at 1-866-536-7593.

The public can report illness or deaths in wild bird species to ODNR on its Bird Disease Reporting page by following the links at