Why Are Birds Dying in Virginia? A Hypothesis

17-year “Brood X” cicada. Photo by Pmjacoby/ Wikimedia.

by Julie Zickefoose, Guest Contributor and Bird Watcher’s Digest Columnist 

A recent Washington Post article discusses fledgling blue jays and grackles being stricken with a “new disease” in Northern Virginia. Birds exhibit blindness, closed eyes, lethargy, and ataxia. I’m going to throw in my unresearched, common-sense opinion as a licensed bird rehabilitator for the past 40 years.

First: Blue jays and grackles are distantly related taxa—corvids and icterids. So a new disease that selectively affects only them would be bizarre, and pretty big news.

Second: One thing grackles and blue jays DO have in common is large body size and big mouths. Big enough to swallow a cicada.

Third: Brood X cicadas have emerged in Northern Virginia. Every bird that can subdue and swallow them is eating them and feeding them to fledglings—but only if they’re big enough to swallow them. You’re not hearing about sick song sparrows.

Fourth: Big box stores are hyping pesticides to “control” cicadas, which is utterly ridiculous. Ortho says: “Sevin® Insect Killer Concentrate, used with pump-style sprayer, is ideal for treating lawn areas and small trees and shrubs at risk for cicada damage. Spray all plant surfaces thoroughly, concentrating on small twigs where cicadas may lay eggs.” This is false, and is preying on people’s fears for profit. You cannot stop Brood X. But people will buy and spray, thinking they will “protect their trees.” And they are doing it.

Put it all together, and the picture that emerges, at least for me, is that these sick fledgling blue jays and grackles in northern Virginia have been fed poisoned cicadas, and that’s what’s killing them. There are just too many external factors working together here for this to be a novel disease. It’s got to be humans and their poisons. Mysterious new disease? I think not.

This is my admittedly unresearched but methodically deduced opinion, and I hope to perhaps ward off more unnecessary spraying and countless deaths of birds and animals, because everything that can swallow them, from blue jays to groundhogs to family pets, eats cicadas.

Julie Zickefoose is a naturalist, artist, author of five books, and regular columnist for BWD Magazine. She maintains her own thoughtful, delightful, and educational blog at juliezickefoose.blogspot.com

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