Editorial: Social distancing to save the birds

What’s killing the birds?

Just as important, can we turn back the mysterious illness spreading through the avian population in Ohio and beyond?

It appears to be particularly dangerous for specific species, including blue jays, common grackles, European starlings, American robins and house sparrows. One theory is that pesticides used to kill cicadas might be responsible, but thus far its origins remain, well, a mystery.

What is clear is that the symptoms, including crusted-over eyes, blindness and neurological issues, are severe enough that Ohio Department of Natural Resources has urged residents to stop using bird feeders and bird baths.

The idea, which the Lorain County Metro Parks already has adopted, is to keep birds from congregating.

As Paul Sherwood of the Black River Audubon Society put it, “This is about social distancing with birds.”

Sound familiar?

It’s reminiscent of the tactics we humans used to protect ourselves from the COVID-19 pandemic. That virus has killed approximately 4 million people around the world, including about 606,000 in the United States. The death toll in Ohio stood at 20,366 on Wednesday, including 454 in Lorain County.

Preventing the spread of the coronavirus, which wasn’t well understood early on, required all of us to make sacrifices, including wearing masks, limiting our interactions and keeping our distance, even from those we loved.

We did so for more than a year as we waited for vaccines to be developed and deployed. Those vaccines are safe and effective, but unfortunately, after an initial rush, the vaccination rate has fallen off.

Nevertheless, the news on the COVID-19 front seems to be good — at least on the surface. The infection rate has been dropping, and Lorain County Public Health estimated Tuesday that there were just 10 active cases confirmed in the county.

The trouble, though, is the rise of mutated versions of the virus, including the delta variant, which is rapidly becoming more prevalent in the United States. It is more infectious than the original strain, although the vaccines still appear to provide some measure of protection against it.

The more people the delta variant infects, the greater the risk that it will spread and infect more people. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could experience another surge or another variant that’s even more infectious or deadlier. Vaccinations can help guard against that by limiting infections.

So would masks and social distancing, if the spread makes them advisable again.

Which brings us back to the birds.

Thus far, cases of whatever is plaguing them has been limited to Brown, Butler, Clark, Clermont, Delaware, Franklin, Greene, Hamilton, Montgomery and Warren counties. However, diseases have a tendency to migrate, particularly among highly mobile populations, like birds and people. Sooner or later, whatever is killing the birds will likely arrive along the shores of Lake Erie, including in Lorain County.

Recall that until March of last year the coronavirus wasn’t on many Americans’ radar. But then the NBA canceled its season. Tom Hanks and his wife contracted the virus in Australia. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine pumped the brakes hard on the Arnold Sports Festival before any COVID-19 cases were even reported in the state.

If we can take measures to protect ourselves from a once-in-a-century pandemic, we should be willing to put aside birds’ buffets and baths for a time to safeguard our feathered friends from whatever is killing them.

Conversely, if we’re willing to do that for the birds, we should be willing to take steps to protect ourselves from the coronavirus.

— Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, July 8