Birds are going blind in the D.C. region, and wildlife experts don’t know why

There is no knowing – at least not yet – whether what is grounding the young birds is contagious to humans, being caused by humans or simply happening in an area heavily populated by humans.

Alexandra Dimsdale found this young, blind grackle stumbling outside her Washington, D.C., home. She took it to a wildlife rehabilitator but learned it couldn’t be saved. Alexandra Dimsdale via The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In the video, the young grackle takes a few wobbly steps along a sidewalk, pauses and then wobbles some more.

The bird’s eyes appear completely closed.

When Alexandra Dimsdale found the stumbling creature on the ground outside her D.C. home on Saturday morning, she wasn’t sure whether it was a crow or some other type of black bird. All she knew for certain was that it needed help.

She took the video right after she called local animal control officials for advice and right before she covered her hands in plastic grocery bags, scooped the bird into an empty diaper box and took it to City Wildlife, a rehabilitation center.

There, she learned that the bird was a fledgling grackle and that it probably had some sort of neurological illness that had left it blind.

“We can’t do anything for it, but we can put it out of its misery,” Dimsdale said a staff member told her.

What that staff member said next left her concerned for more than that young grackle: They had seen other birds with the same symptoms.

Dimsdale had started that day stepping outside her home and ended up walking into a mystery. Wildlife experts say that an unusual number of blind birds have been found dead or dying in the Washington region lately, and they don’t know why.

On Tuesday, the animal control team at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington released a public service announcement about the increase in calls they have received since May 18 about sick and injured young birds. Most of the calls have involved grackles 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,” the announcement says. “Animal Control is now seeing additional species of birds affected. Other agencies and localities across the region and state are reporting similar issues at this time.”

The announcement says that the Arlington team is working with a biologist from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to coordinate testing of some of the dead birds. It also asked that people who find any on their property to dispose of them promptly, while taking precautions to avoid direct contact, and report ones that are discovered on public property.

“We are deeply saddened by the recent issue in our beloved and treasured migratory bird population,” Jennifer Toussaint, the chief of animal control, told me when I asked her about the issue. “We are hopeful to have more information soon and promise to keep the public up to date on what we become aware of.”

If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our existence is more closely tied to the existence of wild animals than we realize. A zoonotic virus forced us to pull away from relatives and co-workers and friends. It caused us to lose jobs and businesses and loved ones.

There is no knowing – at least not yet – whether what is grounding the young birds is contagious to humans, being caused by humans or simply happening in an area heavily populated by humans. What is clear is that many humans are taking notice.

“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.

• “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.”

Dimsdale also shared her experience on that site, and since then, her husband has found even more birds on the ground. Knowing that so many are dying this way, she says, has “surprised and alarmed” her.

“When something is happening on a large scale in nature, it’s frightening to think about,” she says. “I’m worried this is the canary in the coal mine.”

On Tuesday, I spoke with Megan Kirchgessner of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources over email about the issue. She said the department has received numerous reports of birds showing ocular problems and exhibiting signs of weakness and possible neurological issues. The majority of reports have come from Arlington, but some have also been received from Maryland and as far as Winchester, Va., about 75 miles west.

“The volume of reports and clinical signs are not suggestive of something that we have seen routinely in this area, so we may be dealing with an emerging or novel issue,” she said.

Online, some people had theorized that residents who were spraying cicadas with pesticides may be causing the problem.

I asked Kirchgessner if that was a possibility. She said that “pesticide use is on the differential list” but that testing is needed to know whether the cause is bacterial, viral or exposure to a toxin. A shipment of blue birds had just arrived that day for testing.

Jim Monsma is the executive director of City Wildlife, where Dimsdale took the grackle. He has 25 years of experience in the animal protection field in the Washington area – and he’s concerned about what’s happening to the birds.

“It’s terribly scary,” he says. “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 rehabilitation center has collected more than 40 samples, and sent three of them to be tested for West Nile virus. The results came back negative.

Monsma says the center’s staff members take care of orphaned and injured animals. They don’t run a medical lab and they aren’t epidemiologists.

That leaves them in the same position as others in the region: waiting for answers.