Then the Birds Began to Die

I carried on for more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, but I didn’t see the next plague coming.

A dead white pigeon on pavement
Joseph E. Reid / Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

After the end of the world, there will be birdsong. I used to imagine this when everything was going awry. I would lie in bed in my college dorm room and listen to the lone mockingbird who sang all night outside my window in the spring months. I was worried about something or other; he was getting on with things. It’s what birds do. They have a knack for it. In the Book of Genesis, after the devastation of the Earth by God’s cataclysmic flood, Noah releases from his ark a dove; he knows that the trial has ended when the bird does not return, having alighted somewhere out in the damp and dreary world, the first land-dwelling creature to begin the work of carrying on.

What else is there to do? When COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, late in the winter of 2020, I told myself as much. In plagues, as in life, there is a morally arbitrary hierarchy of luck, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my family and I were among the lucky ones. I was in my late 20s, hale and hearty, my husband the same plus a couple of years. Our children were young—our baby was, in fact, under a year old, something I eventually mentioned in a meekly anxious aside to a doctor I was interviewing for a story on the emerging pandemic. He acknowledged certain risks in the way that doctors do, and then said: “Don’t worry. Kids are kicking ass with this thing.” I was both comforted and chastened; this wasn’t mine to panic about. The best I could do for those in peril was to carry on.

So I did. All of us did. The disease did indeed sweep up on us. We looked after our children while we worked from home, and assembled a stockpile of personal protective equipment beside our apartment door—adult cloth masks and child-sized ones, N95s and latex gloves, a precious few cartons of Clorox wipes and bottles of hand sanitizer. We didn’t want our older daughter to be unduly afraid, and so we told her the truth: We’ll get better if we get sick, we said. What we need to do is make sure we don’t get other people sick. That’s why we’ve got to be so careful.

At the time we lived in a co-op with mostly elderly residents, and I began to grocery shop for a few neighbors who couldn’t make use of delivery apps. I would leave their bags outside their doors and retreat to the elevator before calling to let them know, never so much as seeing a face. I had become a risk. I thought of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s selection from the Bhagavad Gita: Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds. All of us had, if we were lucky.

Death soon touched everything I wrote about, everything I thought of. I interviewed a man undergoing chemotherapy who was worried about the disease; he died less than a week after we spoke on the telephone. I visited a homeless shelter where essential workers and their children were living, terrified of what might happen to them if they kept working and certain that they could not stop. I traveled to Terre Haute, Indiana, to witness one of more than a dozen federal executions carried out by the Trump administration, several of which were, in retrospect, super-spreader events. It was surreal to watch federal agents preside so pompously over the drowning of a man in his own lung secretions knowing that plenty of prisoners in state care had already met the same end without any such sentence. What was one more?

Eventually, we got sick. My husband and I were weary and haggard for a week or so; the children never even showed symptoms. The degree of our illness was so minor compared with its worst manifestations that we said little about it to co-workers or friends or on social media. It would have been ridiculous to compare what passed through our home as a mild cold to the plague ravaging parts of the country and swaths of the world. Afterward, with the sickness itself behind us and the pandemic still raging, there was nothing to do—still nothing to do—but carry on, stoically, and pray for an end to come.

And then, from the haze, a horizon: As winter gave way to spring this year, vaccination rates picked up, hospitalizations and deaths dropped, and life as we knew it finally seemed as though it might resume. It would be a while before mask mandates would loosen and people would comfortably congregate again, but in the meantime I was impossibly reassured by the return of birdsong outside my kitchen windows. After a long, cold silence, here were birds again, living.

I have always been a bird-watcher, though my enthusiasm for them far outpaces my knowledge of them. They are the flowers of heaven, creatures of unrivaled beauty whose grace and lightness makes them as alien to the human experience as they are familiar to us. And though we imbue them with all kinds of messages—in myth and legend, they arrive as heralds of good fortune, fair weather, or freedom, as well as harbingers of doom, death, or destiny—and despite the fact that some of them, with their skill for mimicry and impeccable ears, can echo our words, they truly have nothing to say to us. They are not ours. Their world is their own. William Blake was right to observe that the soul itself seems to revolt at a bird in captivity: “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage.”

So it is that bird-watchers are content to simply watch them; that’s enough. And I began to watch them, my heart lifting little by little, as they busily nested in the bushes and trees in my garden. Eggs appeared in nests under broad hydrangea leaves; the peanut-studded suet cakes tucked into the backyard feeder began to disappear precipitously, and the window-mounted seed feeder drew crowds of finches, robins, jays, swallows. As modest outdoor gatherings began again, I made trips to farmers’ markets on the weekends, and always picked up a pint of wild berries to leave out for the birds. They never lasted more than a day.

One afternoon in April, when the recovery seemed well under way, a shimmer in the asphalt caught my eye as I stepped out of the car upon returning home with my husband from an errand. A few paces from our front right tire, a cluster of fat bluebottle flies picked over the bones of a fledgling robin. I knelt down to get a look at him. He was smaller than an adult, but feathered, no hatchling. A midsize hedgerow in my neighbor’s yard seemed as plausible a spot as any for his nest, but it seemed impossible that he could have simply fallen. I called my husband over and motioned to our car. I think we killed him, I said. Not today, clearly, but some time ago.

That didn’t make much sense, either. Surely he would’ve flown off, my husband said. Maybe, I agreed. Maybe something else got him, left him here. Both of us knew that no self-respecting carnivore would go to the trouble of capturing a bird only to leave it altogether intact, but I already felt strange enough for being so invested in the matter, and we let it go.

A week later, I opened the garage to search for my older daughter’s scooter. In the dust on the floor were three dead starlings, their spindly nest still tucked above the garage-door operator.

Starlings are beautiful, in my view, though they’re often treated as urban pests. The dark feathers of adults gleam with a scarab-esque iridescence, dotted with scattered points of white. I thought of Clarice Starling, the protagonist of The Silence of the Lambs. In the film, Starling attempts to compose herself during a conversation with her FBI-agent mentor after he tells her Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer she recently interviewed, seems to have murdered a fellow inmate in retaliation for being rude to her. “I don’t know how to feel about this,” she says. “You don’t have to feel any way about it,” her mentor tells her. Emotion isn’t necessarily immediate. You can decline. Hadn’t I just done that for a year and a half straight?

We must have closed the garage door shortly after they nested there, I decided, starving them to death. My God, I said to myself as I stood in the dust. We killed them too.

Elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic, state wildlife agencies had begun to notice a troubling pattern: Dead birds with infected eyes, mostly jays, robins, grackles, and starlings.

A veterinarian prepares bird carcasses on a necropsy table.
Jon Cherry / Getty

David Curson, the director of bird conservation for Audubon Mid-Atlantic, told me that the earliest reports of the mysterious deaths had reached local authorities in late April, sparking investigations across the region. Researchers at the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Geological Survey, and several state wildlife agencies have all rushed to study infected and dead birds to pinpoint a specific cause of the illness, but so far, the responsible pathogen remains unknown.

“Really there’s two symptoms,” Curson told me. “One is that these birds’ eyes are crusty, so they're showing signs of infection around their eyes. And then there's neurological symptoms, twitching body parts of the bird, or the whole bird twitching or showing lethargy or disorientation … And then of course, eventually they’re dying.”

Epidemics among birds are common. “Diseases circulate in wildlife populations regularly,” Curson said, “and there’s a lot of different diseases that influence birds … It’s no reason to panic just because there's a disease in a bird population.” The alarming thing, he said, is that this sickness is yet unidentified, and that the birds themselves are so familiar.

Grackles, starlings, jays, and robins are all among the more identifiable and robust birds that gather at our feeders, each with their distinctive plumage—blue or red or oil-slick starlight or iridescent peacock-teal shading into bronze. All of them are on the larger side for songbirds, closer to the two cupped handfuls of a mourning dove than the scant palmful of a house finch. When you find them, in other words, you notice them.

Curson reiterated the advice that conservation agencies have dispensed since the onset of the epidemic. “People should take down their bird feeders,” first of all, he said. “Bird feeders encourage birds to congregate, and that is going to increase the chance of transmitting and spreading this disease.” After bringing them inside, Curson suggested, people should clean their feeders with a 10 percent bleach solution diluted with water to kill any lingering pathogens. Thus far, this illness hasn’t spread to household pets or human beings, though Curson emphasized that cats and dogs should be kept away from bird carcasses as a precaution, and that humans handling dead birds should wear gloves and wash their hands after contact.

By the time I caught wind of the mysterious illness, it was late June, and I had already found two more dead birds. One had died in the grass near the hedges where I had found the first robin. I had told my husband about it, and about the starlings in the garage. It didn’t seem likely we had caused the death of every single one of them, he had said. But I had insisted: If their deaths weren’t related to us, something we were doing, then the whole neighborhood would be covered in dead birds. It was only when I overheard a local radio news segment about the mystery disease that I realized what it was.

So I went out on some warm evening and sent the twilight diners flying with the bang of a screen door. I took their feeder down, though I could feel them watching me curiously from the eaves. I wanted to apologize to them, as ridiculous as that sounds. I’m sorry, I imagined saying to them. I love you, but I can’t help you now, only hurt you. Eventually, the sickness will pass, and I’ll refill my bleached feeders and turn them out again, and I’ll stand at my kitchen window and watch the birds go about their business. Until then, we’ve got to carry on.

On another night, early in July, I noticed a blue jay freshly dead in a bed of creeping phlox. After some time birds look very regal in death, with their beaks turned and their wings outstretched, the arc of their shoulders framing halos around their heads. But when they first die they are as they were in life but graceless, bluntly inert. I sat down on the back porch with a garden spade in my hand after I buried him in a stretch of earth between two great tufts of pampas grass, alongside all the others. A low wind cooled the sweat at the nape of my neck. Autumn would come soon enough, and the birds would fall silent, and then what? Through the patio door, I heard a local news anchor warning of an incoming surge of Delta-variant COVID-19 cases.

Doesn’t make any sense to cry about all of this now, I thought. And as I lost the argument I had posed to myself, I thought: Oh Lord, please don’t make me do this again.