Bluebird and Small Cavity Nester Conservation
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eggsLyme Disease and Bluebirding

Lyme disease is probably the biggest health threat faced by bluebirders, because ticks are common in meadows and tall grass near forest edges where deer, mice AND bluebirds hang out. Of course Hantavirus can be deadly, but it’s rare, and bluebirders are generally only exposed to it when cleaning out mice nests.

See facts about Lyme disease, prevention tips for bluebirders including creating tick free zones in your yard, proper tick removal techniques, disease symptoms, natural tick repellents, the deer factor, and sources of more information.

Quick Tips: Don't get bitten! Be especially careful during mid-May through mid-July, and if you live in CT, DE, ME, MD, MA, MN, NJ, NH, NY, PA, RI and WI. Wear light colored clothing, tuck pants into socks, spray clothing with tick repellant, try yand do daily tick checks after being in grassy areas with forest edge. Removing a tick within 2 days of getting bitten reduces your chance of contracting Lyme disease. Grasp the head of tick as close to your skin as possible with a pair of fine tipped tweezers and pull the tick straight outward with a slow steady pressure. If you are bitten by a tick and experience symptoms 3-30 days later, see a doctor as soon as possible.

I got Lyme disease for the first time in July 2005. This is kind of amazing, since I lived and worked in Suffolk County, Long Island for several years. Suffolk and Nassau counties have the highest incidence of Lyme disease in the nation, probably because of habitat loss and their exploding deer population – over 700 per square mile in some areas. I have always worried about Lyme, but got too lax about wearing light colored clothing and spraying my clothes with DEET repellent because I was busy monitoring three trails.

I never got the signature bull's eye rash (erythema migrans), but about Lyme tick relative to ruler and dime.  Drawing from CDC website.three weeks after being bitten by a deer tick, other symptoms came on very quickly – malaise, low grade fever (100-102°F) and chills, body and joint aches. I felt as though someone had pummeled every square inch of my body with a rubber mallet, which along with the fever and chills made sleeping difficult. I also experienced frequent urination, a mild headache and a bit of a sore throat. By the third day, I could barely walk down the stairs. That and the fever convinced me something other than aging involved, so I went to the doctor. I actually went to the emergency room because it was a Friday night, and I'm glad I did, because I don't think I could have taken an extra two days of this illness.

Getting treatment early is critical – I have a young friend who waited too long, even though he had a classic bulls-eye rash. He was on an IV pump for a month, and still has joint problems and mental fuzziness. A colleague developed Bell's (facial nerve) palsy.

Some interesting facts about Lyme disease:

  • Lyme disease is now the leading cause of vector-borne infectious illness in the U.S. It is preventable, treatable, and curable if diagnosed early.
  • Although Lyme disease cases have been reported in 49 states, 95% of reported cases are from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. If you're in those states, be extra careful. I wonder if infections are sometimes missed in other states where Lyme Disease is less common because doctors are not used to seeing it.
  • Lyme disease was named after Lyme, Connecticut, where a cluster of children with arthritis was identified in the 1970's.
  • Deer ticks (Ixodes sp.) transmit Lyme disease. They are tiny - nymphs are the size of a poppy seed. Adults are about the size of a sesame seed, but are larger when engorged with blood. Although they are equally gross, the bigger dog ticks are not known to transmit Lyme disease.
  • Lyme disease is not contagious - i.e., it is not passed from one person to another.
  • Infected deer tick nymphs may be active from spring through late fall, but most will feed during a smaller time window of mid-May through mid-July, which is when the majority of Lyme disease infections occur. Adults, nymph and larval stages all pose a risk.
  • The rash may vary greatly in both size and appearance. Often it looks like a bull's eye - light in the center, surrounded by red. There may be more than one on the body. It might not be in the location where the tick bit you. 20-40% of infected people never get a rash.
  • Other species of ticks also carry diseases. There are 10 diseases are spread by ticks in the U.S. It is possible to get more than one from a single tick bite. In Connecticut, approximately 20% of patients with Lyme disease also test positive for another tick-associated disease.
  • Ticks live in tall weeds, long grass and wooded areas.
  • Ticks can’t jump - they only crawl. However, since a lot of bluebird trails are in tall grass, if you brush against it they can easily get on you. By the way, bluebirds prefer to hunt in areas with short grass.
  • It usually takes ticks a couple of hours to find a biting spot, so timely tick checks help a lot. Ticks like to feed in armpits and groins (ouch!).
  • Transmission usually occurs after 2-3 days of feeding. Thus even if it’s bitten you, getting it off right away you decrease the changes of infection.
  • The disease incubation period is 3-30 days, typically 7-14.
  • There are three tests for Lyme disease. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends testing initially with a sensitive first test such as Lyme Disease ELISA or IFA test, followed by testing with the more specific Western Blot test to corroborate inconclusive or positive results obtained with the first test. The test may turn up negative even if the patient is infected, especially if the blood was collected within two weeks of when symptoms began. That's because it takes time for the antibodies that the test detects to build up. If Lyme disease is not detected by the blood test, a second test may be performed 1-3 months later. Once you have tested positive for Lyme, the test will generally come back positive in the future, even if you do not have an active case.
  • Doxycycline (pronounced DOX-ee-sigh-KLIN) is the current antibiotic treatment of choice. (Amoxicillin or orerythromycin are often prescribed for children under 9, women who are breast-feeding, or people allergic to doxycycline.) If you go outside (even with sunblock) while taking doxycycline, you can develop a sunburn that is almost as nasty as a chemical burn - especially on areas you might miss with sunblock, like eyelids or wrists. While you're taking it (in my case for 21 days), severely limit time outside, slather on strong sunblock, cover up with clothes, and consider bringing an umbrella while monitoring trails. Motrin helps control aches. My physician also recommended Benadryl to sleep, and lots of liquids.
  • You never develop immunity to Lyme disease.
  • There is no available vaccine for humans. LYMErix™ vaccine was taken off the market in 2002 because of reactions to it. It wasn't all that effective anyway.
  • There is a vaccine for dogs, which can also contract Lyme, but some people are concerned about side effects. Because dogs are running around outdoors, and ticks are hard to find in their fur, it has been speculated that the incidence of Lyme in dogs is somewhere between 6-100 times higher than in humans. I've noticed people who have outdoor dogs and cats seem much more likely to get Lyme (because the pets bring the ticks indoors).
  • We know open space is critical for wildlife. However, breaking forests into small parcels can also impact human health. While fragments generally have fewer species than continuous habitat, some species like white-footed mice actually do better in small patches, probably because there are fewer predators and competitors left. White-footed mice populations are high in fragments smaller than about five acres, which could mean trouble for people living nearby. Mice are the main carriers of Lyme disease bacteria. In one study, fragments smaller than three acres had an average of three times as many total deer tick nymphs as larger fragments did, and seven times as many infected nymphs. As many as 80% of the nymphs were infected in the smallest patches, the highest rate the researchers have seen.
  • Physicians noted the distinctive rash and symptoms associated with tick bites even before the 1940's. Although both my husband and I spent much of our childhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s outdoors in the in VA and CT, we NEVER recall seeing a deer tick – maybe because they were so small and we were more creeped out by dog ticks, or perhaps because deer populations were lower then.
  • Other serious deer tick-borne diseases include Ehrlichiosis, Babesiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever Colorado Tick Fever, Tick-borne Relapsing Fever, Tularemia and Tick Paralysis, Anaplasmosis, and Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness (STARI - from lone star ticks).

Prevention tips for Bluebirders: The best defense? Don't get bitten!

  • Stay on cleared trails, avoiding contact with tall grass and brush when possible.
  • When resting, don't sit on logs or lean against trees. See article.
  • The chocolate colored ticks are easier to spot on light colored clothing, but they might also be more attracted to dark colors (because of the heat?)
  • Tucks pants into socks; wear long sleeves with cuffs. Wear shoes that completely cover your feet.
  • Use an effective tick repellant containing DEET (clothing or skin) or permethrin (for clothing). Follow all manufacturer's directions for use. Repellents can cause an allergic reaction and irritation to eyes and skin if misused.
    • I like Deep Woods Off because it isn't as stinky as some repellents. Apply it outdoors and don't breath in the fumes. Some children have reactions to DEET. DEET repels ticks and insects, but does not kill them.
    • Permethrin can be applied to clothes ONLY to repel or kill ticks on contact. It stays effective for approximately 2 weeks or 2 washings. Spray it on clothing in dry weather conditions only.
    • See information on natural alternatives.
  • Check clothes every two hours of outdoor activity and remove ticks before they can make contact with your skin.
  • After field work, brush clothing off outside. Put clothes in the dryer for 20-30 minutes to kill hitchhiking ticks.
  • Shower after field work, as soon as possible after being outdoors (within 1-2 hours). Check entire body for attached ticks when showering. Ticks can easily walk from ankle to shoulders within a few hours, so you need to check your entire body, especially underarms, crook of arm, head and groin.
  • Use tick control products on dogs (e.g., FrontLine or check with your vet on pet collars, sprays, dips and vaccines). Check pets daily to keep ticks out of the house. Keep pets in fenced areas where grass is kept short.
  • If you are bitten, keep track of the date and watch for symptoms, which show up in 3-30 days. Not everyone bitten by a deer tick will develop Lyme disease. Not everyone who has Lyme disease displays typical symptoms.
  • If you know you've been bitten and experience symptoms — particularly if you live in an area where Lyme disease is prevalent — see your doctor immediately.
  • Create Tick-Free Zones. Deer ticks need moist environments to survive; they die quickly where it is dry.
    • Clear brush and leaves where ticks live. Research indicates that tick populations are reduced 72-100% when leaf litter is removed.
    • Keep wood piles in sunny areas.
    • Lay down wood chips or gravel where lawns butt up against wooded areas. This creates a drying barrier.
    • Mow the lawn, clear brush, and keep the ground under bird feeders clean.
    • Provide a vegetation-free play area. Keep play areas and playground equipment away from from shrubs, bushes, and other vegetation.
    • Consider using a chemical control agent. Effective tick control chemicals are available for use by the homeowner, or they can be applied by a professional pest control expert. If you use the household products, be sure to follow the instructions carefully to provide the appropriate amount and distribution of the chemical.
    • Use bait boxes to treat rodents. “Bait boxes” that treat wild rodents with acaricide (pesticides that that kill ticks) are now available for home use. Properly used, these boxes have been shown to reduce deer ticks around homes by more than 50%. The treatment is similar to products used to control ticks and fleas on pets and does not harm the rodents. Bait boxes are available from licensed pest control companies in CT, DE, ME, MD, MA, MN, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, VA, and WI.

Proper Tick Removal Procedures

  • If you find an attached tick, don't panic. Very few (1-3%) of tick bites result in Lyme disease. Remove attached ticks properly and promptly. Use fine tipped tweezers. Do NOT use vaseline or a match. This makes it WORSE because the tick may "throw up" into your skin. Other devices that can usually be obtained at a feed supply store include:
    • "Ticked Off," which looks like a little white plastic measuring spoon with a V notch. Scoop the tick's head at the V, and the tick falls into the spoon.
    • "Tick Nipper," which looks like white plastic pliers, with the jaws of the pliers forming a scoop. Close the two halves of the scoop around the tick's head and pull it out.
  • Proper tick removal.  From CDC website.Grasp the head of tick as close to your skin as possible and pull the tick straight outward with a slow steady pressure.
  • Do not squeeze or crush the ticks body, or twist and jerk as you are pulling, as this can cause the tick's mouth parts to remain in the skin, or allow infected fluids to enter the wound.
  • Do not burn ticks with a match, or coat with nail polish remover or petroleum jelly, as this may actually increase your chance of getting infected.
  • If you want to save the tick for later identification and disease evaluation by medical personnel, put it in a vial of alcohol, or a vial containing a small piece of slightly moistened toweling paper, and refrigerated until needed.
  • After removing the tick, wash your hands with soap and water (or waterless alcohol-based hand rubs when soap is not available).
  • Clean the tick bite with an antiseptic such as iodine scrub, rubbing alcohol, or water containing detergents, and bandage it.
  • Put the tick in a small, air-tight glass jar and write the date that you removed it on the lid. Since the bacteria remains viable in the gut of the tick for quite some time. This could help your medical professional make (or confirm) an accurate diagnosis in the event that you are infected.
  • If you experience flu-like symptoms 3-30 days after a tick bite, see your doctor, especially if it's not flu season. Be aware that some medical practioners may not be familiar with how to diagnose Lyme disease (especially in areas where it is uncommon).

Typical Symptoms of Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis and Babesiosis

NOTE: Diagnosis usually depends on whether or not the person has been in tick territory, where they live, whether they know they were bitten by a tick, the kind of tick and how long ago they were bitten, the time of year, medical history, symptoms, and/or blood test results. The symptoms of many tick-borne diseases mimic flu or other illnesses. Cases may be misdiagnosed or under-reported, and the number of cases seems to be on the rise.

By knowing the symptoms, you will be able to respond and seek early treatment. The sooner tick-borne infections are treated, the better chance you'll have of full recovery with no long-term effects. Many individuals who have been treated for Lyme disease never even knew they were bitten by a tick. Since deer ticks are so small, the infection may go unnoticed until symptoms develop.

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a medical expert - I just compiled this information from a variety of reliable resources like the CDC, NIH and WebMD. Note that lab tests for these diseases are different. People can also get co-infections (e.g., both Lyme and Ehrlichiosos) resulting in more severe or prolonged illness and overlapping symptoms.

Don't rely on this webpage for medical advice!!! See a physician!

  • LYME DISEASE - Gradual onset of flu-like symptoms. Symptoms typically appear after an incubation period of 3-20 days following the tick bite. Most common tick related disease. Fatalities are rare. Without treatment, progresses in stages involving a variety of tissues including joints, heart, and nervous system. Stage 1: flu-like illness, malaise, rash; Stage 2 (weeks or months later): neurological abnormalities like meningitis and cranial and peripheral nerve neuropathies; Stage (months or years later) recurrent meningitis, subtle mental disorders or neurological deficits, chronic arthritis - 10% develop facial paralysis (e.g., Bell's Palsy) which typically resolves itself completely (rarely results in mild permanent facial weakness) and hearing loss. (from Facial Nerve Paralysis, 1996)
    • Headache
    • Nausea
    • Chills
    • Fever (100-102°F)
    • Malaise, fatigue
    • Muscle aches
    • Sore joints
    • Bull's-eye rash (60-80% of cases) - red ring with clear center, dime sized and up. Multiple rash sites possible.
    • Swollen lymph nodes
    • ? Frequent urination?
    • ? Sore throat?
    • Late stage symptoms if left untreated: persistent pain in joints/muscles, arthritis, partial paralysis of face, heart palpitation or abnormality, meningitis. Generally Lyme disease in its later stages can also be treated effectively, but because of varying disease progression and individual response to treatment, some people may symptoms that linger for months or even years following treatment. In rare cases, Lyme disease can cause permanent damage.
  • EHRLICHIOSIS (HGE) - Both animals and humans can get ehrlichiosis from the Ehrlichia and Anaplasma bacteria. Sudden onset of flu-like symptoms. Symptoms typically appear after an incubation period of 5-10 days up to 3 weeks following the tick bite. Transmitted by the Lone Star tick (transmits human monocytic ehrlichiosis or HME), blacklegged (primary reservoir for human granulocytic ehrlichiosis or HGE) and western blacklegged ticks, also by the deer tick? Previously considered rare - about 12 to 50 cases per year reported to CDC. Cases have been diagnosed in CT. Does not respond to Amoxicillin treatment - Doxycyline is used. Unlike Lyme disease, considered an acute infection with little potential for chronic long-term consequences. some people do not get ill or develop only mild symptoms. Fatality rate about 2-3%, mostly in elderly or those with compromised immune systems. See CDC website for more info and treatment options. Most cases occur in CT in May, June and July.
    • Severe headache
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Chills and shaking
    • Sudden high fever (102°F +)
    • Malaise, fatigue, weakness
    • Cough
    • Major muscle aches
    • Aching joints
    • Rash uncommon
    • Drenching sweats
    • Diarrhea
    • Swollen lymph nodes
    • Abnormal laboratory findings may occur including an abnormally low number of circulating blood platelets, a decrease in white blood cells, and an abnormal increase in the level of certain liver enzymes.
  • BABESIOSIS - considered rare (cases diagnosed in CT in 1988). From a parasitic protozoa (Babesia.) Symptoms appear 1-3 (up to 6?) weeks after tick bite. (CT DEP say sit can take 1-12 mos. for first symptoms to appear.) Like malaria, and requires different treatment from Lyme/Ehrlichiosis. Most severely affects people over 50 and those with compromised immune systems. About 5% of cases are fatal. See CDC website for more info. Symptoms may come on gradually. Most cases in CT occur in June, July and August.
    • High fever
    • Drenching sweats
    • Chills
    • Headache
    • Muscle aches
    • Fatigue
    • Loss of appetite
    • Dark urine
    • Cough
    • Shortness of breath
    • Jaundice
    • Other complications (per CT DEP: Very low blood pressure, severe hemolytic anemia, live problems and kidney failure (especially likely in peope who have had spleen removed.)
  • ROCKY MOUNTAIN SPOTTED FEVER - symptoms appear 2-14 days after infection, usually 5-10. Not common - 240-1200 cases reported to the CDC annually. Transmitted by the larger "dog tick" - Dermacentor variabilis or D. andersoni (Rocky Mountain wood tick). Can be a severe illness (potentially fatal) - majority of patients are hospitalized. Immediate treatment at the onset of symptoms is crucial. Rare in New England.
    • Moderate to High fever (over 102°F)
    • Chills
    • Spotted Rash (up to 90% of cases, appears 3-5 days after fever onset). Small flat pinkish spots that become raised and may merge into patches, typically around wrist and ankles but may start on torso or be diffuse.
    • Severe headaches
    • Fatigue
    • Deep muscle and joint pain
    • Diarrhea
  • STARI (Southern Tick Associated Rash Illness) - see CDC info. Southeastern and south central states, associated with Amblyomma americanum (Lone Star Tick) which is a larger tick with a white star on its back. Probably only about 1-3% of these ticks carry the disease.
    • Red, expanding rash with central clearing, like that of Lyme disease.
    • Prevention and treatment are the same as Lyme disease.

Natural tick repellents

  • Some people swear that eating a lot of garlic or taking Vitamin E daily prevents tick bites.
  • A variety of herbs that are eaten or worn (e.g., oils that are rubbed on the skin) are purported to repel bugs on both people and dogs, including the following. I have no idea whether the effectiveness or potential side effects of any of these remedies has been objectively and scientifically evaluated.

    The Deer Factor: Selective feeding and overbrowsing by deer can dramatically change the landscape. Forest health and wildlife diversity, including wildflower and grassland songbird populations, suffer as a result. Populations over 10-30 deer per square mile can impact grassland nesting birds, which are in decline in many areas.

    Deer overpopulation can also affect animal and human health (e.g., animal starvation or disease, Lyme disease from deer ticks, and collision injuries), and result in property damage (to cars, landscaping, farm crops and forests.)

    Deer management focuses on maintaining populations at a sustainable level (about 10-30 deer/square mile), in balance with the rest of the ecosystem. Birth control has been tried in areas like Fire Island, but has proven costly, labor-intensive, and not very effective. Hunting is the most effective means of controlling local populations. Hunting (tax on gun sales and ammo, and hunting license fees) also funds many wildlife restoration programs. Unfortunately, it can take decades to restore native plants.

For more information:


"Birds are wonderful indicators of our overall environmental health, and as the environment is stressed and biodiversity reduced through habitat degradation and loss, the most sensitive species send out the signal first."
- David Seideman, Audubon magazine, 2005


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