For the birds

by John O'Donnell
Posted 9/2/21

If indeed the disease turned out to be some new variant of avian flu, disregarding the feeder guidelines could easily have intensified an outbreak.

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For the birds


A male catbird scolded me from his perch on a dogwood branch as I sat on my porch. He pecked at the purposeless dangling cord, his familiar meow-like caw unmistakably accusatory. I knew that he knew that I had taken down his favorite suet feeder. We have an open, if transactional, relationship, and it was wearing thin.

Sheepishly I escaped indoors to finish an article that would appear in the July 22 issue of the Local about the baffling plague that has been decimating eastern songbird flocks. Wildlife experts, the piece reported, were calling upon backyard birders to remove feeding stations in order to stem the spread of a probably infectious and invariably fatal avian disease.

My spouse, dog and I richly enjoy the conferences of birds our several feeders attract. I hated the thought of dismantling the array. But publicizing authoritative warnings that I privately ignored seemed inconsistent, and I have always found it easier to maintain my hypocrisies when there is less chance of their exposure. So down with the feeders and up with the byline.

 Actually – honestly – resolving my ambivalence was not so calculating. The emergence of an avian pestilence just as vaccinated portions of our human population began literally and figuratively to breathe more easily disheartened me. I was weary of watchfulness, knackered by notifications.

Having recently (as it turned out, temporarily) archived my face masks, I resented the intrusion of another group of disease experts urging adoption of unaccustomed behaviors, asking me to suspend an innocent pastime made more precious by the ebbing of human intercourse. And so I did what one would expect of a rational person. I rationalized.

Blessed with the scientific acumen of a small soap dish, I seized the hypothesis that best suited my seed-dispensing habit. Some early observers had noted that bird mortality appeared to coincide geographically and temporally with the emergence of Brood-X cicadas. Some of these tasty insects were known to be infected with a lethal fungus; some may have been coated with pesticides. Birds eat bugs. Northwest Philadelphia had experienced neither cicada hatches nor songbird die-offs.

Perfect! I pounced upon this classic logical fallacy – mistaking correlation with cause – like a cardinal on a katydid. Here was a postulate for installing more feeders. I feared that removing food sources from safe habitats might drive birds to unsafe feeding grounds – an apprehension an ornithologist would surely deride. Never mind that. Chestnut Hill birds, I believed, required not a sanitation scheme but a Marshall Plan.

Of course my sentiments were beside the point; the article was destined for the news section, not the opinion page. Passing the assignment to a less conflicted reporter seemed like an easy resolution of a personal dilemma. Ultimately, however, the painful lessons of the COVID pandemic sealed my commitment. I have watched uninformed and misinformed opinion about the nature of disease and methods of cure lead tragically to needless death on an unspeakable scale. When the choice is life or death for birds or beasts, intuition, surmise and hubris (even—gasp!—my own) must bow to scientific method, informed intelligence, and certifiable expertise.

At the time the July article appeared in the Local, investigators considered infection the prime suspect. Undoubtedly the omnipresence of COVID predisposed investigators and science writers toward the epidemiological state of mind. Regardless, the process of searching for and ruling out various infectious diseases – especially ones that can jump to humans, livestock and poultry – was a moral and economic imperative of the first order.

By August’s end, no known infectious disease had been implicated, songbird populations stabilized, and wildlife management agencies okayed the return of feeding stations. In the labs, researchers continue their investigations, aware that the cause of the illness may never be known and that the cicada connection remains a plausible and perhaps unprovable hypothesis.

Recalcitrant skeptics who disregarded the precautionary recommendations of experts and kept their feeders filled will undoubtedly gloat. But the I-told-you-so-ers miss the point. The point is to regard such recommended protocols as one would a fire drill—an occasional inconvenience to prevent or mitigate a future disaster. If indeed the disease turned out to be some new variant of avian flu, disregarding the feeder guidelines could easily have intensified an outbreak.

I’m unsure what my catbird friend thinks about all this. His scrubbed and replenished suet feeder has been up a few days now, and he’s not yet reappeared. I want to convey to him that my action was an expression of cross-species solidarity. I don’t think he’ll buy it. But he’s a smart bird, and I’m betting he’ll be back.