Here at Shalom Acres, our hobby farm in Greenville’s Apple Valley, the past month was oh-so-quiet as we followed guidelines to avoid the potentially fatal disease spreading in much of the country.

The State of Rhode Island was clear in its recommendations: Please, no large gatherings that could turn into super-spreaders. No inviting guests for dinner or dips in the pool. In offering this official advice late in July, the state was resolute, warning that without preventive measures the malady could be devastating.

Sounded like the worrisome tune we’ve long been hearing, and tune-related it was: This was about songbirds, not people.

For those of us who take pleasure in feeding the birds, it was bad news. A disease of unknown origin, while not yet observed in Rhode Island, was afflicting and killing avian populations in the mid-Atlantic. Birds that didn’t die were having seizures, losing balance, and going blind.

Our Department of Environmental Management advised pro-active response here, urging us to take down feeders, since they encourage birds to congregate. As well, the DEM suggested emptying bird baths.

Whether the disease was contagious remained a mystery, but until more was known the prudent course was to shut down the usual backyard amenities.

At Shalom Acres this lowered the curtain on entertainment we enjoy over coffee each morning, as raucous blue jays spar with grackles for supremacy at breakfast amid the flutterings of chickadees and Carolina wrens. Even our two Tibetan terriers seemed to miss the Early Show.

As summer wanes, now comes good news, along with a possible unraveling of the mystery. 

In an email to its members, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island has advised that the disease appears to be abating and never did migrate to the Ocean State, so it’s safe to resume feeding.

The Society cited a report from Cornell University that postulates a possible culprit – a creature that has already made news this year because of its periodic emergence: the cicada.

The report says a sudden decline in cases indicates the disease may not be contagious. It suggests birds could have eaten cicadas that were sprayed with pesticides, and also notes cicadas carry a fungus that could be toxic to birds.

Another indicator: The emergence pattern of cicadas was an exact match for where the bird disease popped up.

The bottom line, according to Audubon Executive Director Lawrence Taft, is, “We share your passion for birds, and we are eager to see the colors and antics of our backyard birds once again.”

At a time when we humans continue to worry and wrangle over how to deal with COVID, it’s uplifting to see feathered vitality once again pulsing on its familiar stage.

Among the first to return was one our favorites, the scarlet, regal cardinal – who unknowingly offered subtle instruction on confronting our own national health emergency.

Our visitor showed up, as cardinals always do, sporting its trademark plumage– a stylish, traditional, and elegant black face mask.

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Gerry Goldstein

Gerry Goldstein, an occasional contributor to What's Up, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist who has been writing for Rhode Island newspapers and magazines for 60 years