Usutu Virus

The Black Birds’ Black Plague

By William Macmaster

The Usutu virus has arrived in The Netherlands and birds are dropping out of the sky in Groningen.

The virus originated in Africa, but according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, hundreds of thousands bird deaths across Europe can already be attributed to the virus that is believed to have arrived from The Netherlands’ neighbouring country Germany. The virus predominantly affects blackbirds, but can also harm sparrows, starlings and thrushes, with a couple of suspected cases in grey owls too.

According to Dierenambulance, an animal ambulance which has been charged with the responsibility of picking up dead birds across the region, the true scale of the disease in The Netherlands is difficult to tell. “It’s almost impossible to verify an exact number. We are not veterinarians, so we cannot judge if a dead bird might be carrying the virus as we pick up so many.” Stephen, a general worker at Dierenambulance, explained.

Its symptoms are like those seen in humans who contract influenza. The birds grow very weak, so they either become unable to search for food and starve to death, or they become easy prey for predators. Early signs are a loss of feathers, mainly on the head, and susceptibility to being handled. According to Pim Lollinga, the founder of the Fauna Visie Wildcare in Westernieland, which is looking after some of the diseased birds. 

If birds are treated with the appropriate medical attention provided by self-funded animal sanctuaries such as Pim’s, the birds do have a good chance of survival. They are treated with a form of salt as well as by force-feeding the birds a mixture of crushed pellets and insect extracts until they are healthy again.  

“We have about a 70% survival rate at the moment.” Pim explained. “They come alive more and more every day. We have saved around 14-15 which are flying well and have new feathers, but a few died on arrival and there were four we couldn’t save. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun to do and it’s good to see some birds survive.”

Once treated, the birds are immune for life. Many of these birds have already been released, with more expected to be released at the end of this week when the weather improves.

However, Pim believes there will more reason to be worried in the coming weeks, “More members of the blackbird family will migrate from Scandinavia in October. If they get in contact with the sick ones then the migrating birds might also get the virus, so I hope it’s gone by then.”