How Tri-State nature preserves are responding to sick, dying songbirds in the Midwest

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The unnamed disease killing songbirds throughout Indiana and neighboring states has brought in more than 1,000 reports of sick and dying birds. Wildlife organizations are working to find out why and what they can do to protect their feathered inhabitants.

Armed with little knowledge about what is afflicting local songbirds, Vanderburgh and other counties with reports of sick or dying birds have removed and stored their bird feeders. Complying with recommendations made by the

Department of Natural Resources

, these natural attractions are trading bird watching for bird safety saying that part of their role is to not only protect the land and animals they steward but to educate visitors.

Birds with symptoms have tested negative for the avian influenza, the West Nile Virus and other diseases known to impact birds. Those infected with the unnamed disease have been reported in 69 of Indiana's 92 counties. Symptoms include crusty or swollen eyes, head swelling and neurological problems.

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Close to home

Wesselman Woods, a 200-acre virgin old-growth forest in the heart of Evansville, is home to 150 species of birds, including many of the songbird species impacted by the new disease.

Under normal circumstances, the nature preserve would have more than 10 feeders hung outside the large windows of their nature center. However, Wesselman's Director of Community Engagement Kristina Arwood said they’ve taken down all birdfeeders on the property, posting notices to inform visitors about the disease.

“Birdfeeders kind of create a hub, an area where lots of birds may congregate in one place, and that is how those diseases spread,” she explained. “Not having that centralized location is helpful. It encourages (birds) to find food out in the forest, in nature, and not congregate around one central location.”

While there have been reports of sick birds within the county, Wesselman Woods Wildlife Curator and Educator Elaine Kung said she hasn’t seen or heard reports of sick birds within the Wesselman Woods. Other parks and nature preserves in the area have reported similar circumstances — sick birds, but none their staff personally witnessed or heard reports of on their property.

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With feeders gone, will the birds stick around?

Without feeders to attract birds to homes, wildlife observatories and feeding areas, they’ll go to other food sources, Kung explained, adding that Wesselman’s diverse population of native plants, rather than its birdfeeders, are what make the forest an attractive home for its birds.

“Most of the time people will think of trees as being perches for the birds, but perching is just one aspect of their habitat. When you have a lot of native plants that support native insects, you’re also going to have insects as a direct food source and as pollinators for the other fruits and berries that the birds would be eating,” she said.

Across the Ohio River, Audubon State Park also removed feeders. Head naturalist Lisa Hoffman said that while there haven’t been any sick birds found in Henderson County, Kentucky, the park wanted to be proactive in protecting its bird population.

“Audubon is kind of known as a bird-watching hotspot,” she said. “We get so many birders in here that we felt like we should set a precedent and bring to people’s attention that there is a wildlife heath problem right now.”

Hoffman explained that birds in the area would pay little notice to the lack of birdfeeders because of the summer’s ample food supply.

“Sometimes in the growing season, you don’t really have a lot of activity at your bird feeders anyway. It’s just kind of a little supplement, an easy quick fix for them if they really need some seed. Most of the time birds are completely capable of finding anything that they need in the wild,” she said.


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What to do after the growing season

While researchers work to find answers about the disease, the end of the summer — and growing season — are approaching.

For birds, this means migration to warmer areas and less available food, especially if feeders aren't in use. Hoffman said the seed in bird feeders is especially helpful during winter months.

“Wintertime temperature drops and snow or ice events do create kind of a difficulty for birds to get the energy that they need," she said. "A lot of our seeds contain the high fat content that the birds need to keep their bodies going in cold temperatures."

Hoffman added that birds farther north would face greater difficulty than those in Southern Indiana and Kentucky.

“For us right here in this region, we don’t have as extreme winters, so it’s not quite as important here as in other parts of the country,” she said.

Although a continued reduction in feeders will challenge birds to find different food sources, migration and warmer southern temperatures will provide other opportunities for birds to find food without heightening their chance of spreading the disease.


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Report it

Information on how to spot and report sick or dying birds in Indiana or updates on the disease can be found at

. Affected birds in Kentucky can be reported to

. For more information on native plant species you can visit