One for sorrow

The Perth magpie population is facing the threat of a severe paralysis attack known as “Black and White Bird disease.”

It was first reported in the eastern states in the early 2000s, with no records of the disease overseas and no apparent cause.

It has now travelled to Perth with experts saying it is completely different to the eastern strand.

Chief executive officer of Native Animal Rescue (NAR), Kelly Ellemor, says she believes this is a new form of the virus.

“The virus over there was sporadic, it was an outbreak in 2000, 2003, 6, 8, 12, 15. It wasn’t continuously every season like we are seeing here, so there are these differences that I personally believe we are dealing with a different virus.”

Ms Ellemor says it was most prominent in male magpies when the disease first appeared in Perth in 2017.

As the years went on, the NAR began to receive further cases involving females and eventually juvenile birds.

The centre has received reports of cluster deaths involving entire flocks, making the disease harder to understand as it seems to be evolving.

Through her research, Ms Ellemor identified higher temperatures as a possible contributor to the cause.

“I did a study and noticed around 28 degrees we would get them in, sometimes two a day,” she says.

“It just seemed to change and become a little bit harder to treat so it has changed dramatically, the last couple of weeks we’ve had a couple in that have really thrown me, because it hasn’t been 28 degrees but we’ve had a run of them and not just magpies, mudlarks as well.

“The temperature was the only thing I could put my finger on, but now it’s 22 degrees and we’ve got these cases, it’s totally blown that out of the water.”

Infographic: Breanna Redhead.

Ms Ellemor saying despite extensive research, results remains inconclusive.

The last few years, the four major centres have been sending a lot of bodies, all fresh animals, to DPIRD [Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development] to get as much information as they can so there’s been no money spared in every effort trying to  find out what on earth we are dealing with,” she says.

“It’s not that it’s being ignored by any means, there’s just no real conclusion answers at the moment.”

Volunteer carer at AWARE Wildlife Rescue in Mandurah, Natasha Thornton, says the disease varies greatly between cases.

She has recovered both a grey currawong and a magpie, but says the differences in response to treatment were stark.

The currawong was revived and released in a week, however the magpie has remained at the clinic for over a month.

“They both came in at the same stage yet had a completely different rate of repairing,” she says.

Wildlife Researcher, Carolyn Baldwin, says the media holds some responsibility for perpetuating a negative connotation of magpies, causing a lack of sympathy about this plight.

“I think mainstream media portrays only one aspect of the Australian magpie in particular because its sensationalised and it makes news, it gets people talking and watching. Fear is a very powerful motivator so by spreading fear people take notice because we are wired to have a very big response to fear,” she says.

Mrs Baldwin says magpies are highly intelligent creatures that want to befriend humans.

“Studies show that there is a part of their cognitive ability that is as advanced  as a 4-6 year old child, so they can play hide and seek, but not only that, they actually know when something disappears that is actually still there, it’s a concept called object permanence,” she says.

“They see you as friends not foe. If they’re your friend, then they’re like a dog they’re your friend for life they don’t forget your face.”

Community opinions on magpies. Video: Breanna Redhead.

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