Songbirds Disperse Lyme Ticks Across North America

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Canadian Lyme researcher John D. Scott’s studies of songbirds in Ontario, Canada have found that ground-foraging birds such as sparrows, warblers, wrens, juncos, and thrushes (including the American Robin) are often infested with Lyme disease ticks.

In a study between 2007 and 2009, Scott reported that 481 ticks were collected from 211 songbirds in Canada. Collecting methods included using mist-netting to trap birds who were then banded and checked for ticks before being released and retrieving dead birds that had crashed into city office buildings and fallen to the pavement.

Researchers found multiple species of ticks on the songbirds, some of which are not known to carry Lyme. However, six species of Ixodes ticks were positive for Borrelia burgdorferi (I. auritulus, I. fentatus, I muris, I. pacificus, I. scapularis, and I. spinipalpis). Most surprising was the finding that Ixodes ticks were capable of passing Lyme from one Ixodes species to another while attached to the birds.

What do these findings mean for our understanding of the prevalence and dissemination of Lyme? Plenty!

First, songbirds migrate long distances. Migration patterns between Canada and Central and South America allow birds to spread Lyme ticks across North America twice a year, in the spring and fall, following four major North American flyways that cross coasts, mountains, and principal river valleys already known as Lyme Disease hot spots. The four flyways are:

Atlantic Flyway – East coast of South America, Leeward Islands, the Bahamas, East coast of the US to the upper Midatlantic states, where it splits into four branches: 1) the Upper US Midwest northwest through midCanada, 2) the Upper US Midwest north through Ontario, 3) the US Northeast through Quebec. and 4) up the Eastern coasts of the US and Canada.

Mississippi Flyway – West coast of South America over the Gulf of Mexico to Mississippi, where it splits into four branches:1) Northeast through the Upper Midwest to Eastern Ontario and Quebec, 2) North through the Western Great Lakes to Western Ontario. 3) Northwest through the middle of the US to Manitoba, and 4) Northwest through the middle of the US just west of through Saskatchewan.

Central Flyway – Five routes from Central and Eastern Mexico through the interior Western US states to Alberta and Saskatchewan and north.

Pacific Flyway – West Coast of Central America, West coast of the US, West coast of Canada, with a second branch in Canada going through Alberta.

Second, not only do songbirds provide long-distance transportation for Lyme-infested ticks, they serve as another reservoir host for B. burgdorferi bacteria.

This latter finding puts a major dent in the popular belief that deer are the main reservoir hosts for Lyme. Often we hear of efforts to cull deer to reduce their population (and presumably reduce the incidence of Lyme). That kind of preventive measure is unthinkable with birds. Moreover, songbirds can carry a variety of Lyme-infected ticks that can produce a wider range of clinical symptoms and blood responses in humans than is currently known.

Pioneers like John Scott help push the boundaries of our knowledge about how infectious diseases are transmitted. Clearly, Lyme Disease exists as part of a more complex ecosystem than most of us realize.

Given Scott’s songbird studies, doctors who doubt that Lyme exists in their area should think twice before telling their patients “You couldn’t possibly have Lyme because there are no deer around here.”

You can watch a free 8-min. clip of Scott’s 2011 ILADS songbird presentation here. On that page you can also buy his video set for 15 USD, which includes an encrypted online link to view his powerpoint slides and presentation video.

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14 Responses to “Songbirds Disperse Lyme Ticks Across North America”

  1. Teresa Smelser Says:

    I`ve just been diagnosed with Lyme disease,after at least two years of strong fatigue,painful muscle spasms,heart arrythmias,stiff neck(sometimes coming on even in the middle of the day),and a range of other health issues such as anemia and chronically elevated liver enzymes.It may not be related to Lymes,but I also suffer from osteoarthritis,osteoporosis,spinal stenosis and spondylolisthesis.I`m in pain every day,but only take a vicodin when I can`t stand it anymore(over the counter pain relievers don`t touch it).I`ve had six weeks of PT this summer,many tests,shots in my spin and hip joint,but I`ve gotten little,if any,relief. I have so many questions and am trying to soak information in,but another one of my symptoms is short memory loss.My family & friends have even noticed it. I was distressed to read that songbirds are a common carrier of lyme-bearing ticks!! I have been a federally licensed wild songbird rehabilitator for many years and work at this job year round.I have removed ticks from birds,but never noticed that I ever got bit from a tick.If I did,it did not make a noticable mark.I have a very difficult time keeping up during baby season because of my fatigue.Oh my gosh-am I really going to have to give up doing what I love and risk further exposure??


    • Pam Dodd Says:

      Sorry you’re so sick, Teresa. And that you possibly got Lyme from a songbird tick. Then again, maybe you were bitten elsewhere and not by a tick (since other biting vectors carry it like mosquitoes, fleas, mites, and biting flies). I’d be very careful if you continue working with birds.


  2. Michele Says:

    Thank you for a well written, informative post. I recently researched and wrote a comprehensive paper on Lyme Disease, and was fascinated by how the BB spirochete was transmitted. It is a little disconcerting to know that now songbirds, in addition to deer, are known reservoirs. This will really make it possible for anyone, anywhere to fall victim to this insidious bacteria.


    • Pam Dodd Says:

      Deer have never been the only reservoir animals for Bb, Michele. Besides songbirds, we should also be concerned about white-footed mice and other rodents. Plus many of us with Lyme believe you can get it from biting insects like mosquitoes, flies, midges, and fleas and from spider bites. It is possible for anyone, anywhere to fall victim to Lyme. It’s very sad when people who think they have Lyme get told by doctors they see that there are no ticks or deer in their area so they couldn’t possible have it.


  3. sandra Says:

    I have had Lyme disease for god knows how long. I was treated by an alternative practioner(environmental doc) for 2 years…I saw no benefit. However, I also have Sjogren’s syndrome, fibromyalgia, lead and mercury poisoning, as well as Lyme, a bunch of spine problems…I could go on. 1 1/2 years ago, I was diagnosed with Pulmonary Hypertension; I found out later that it is a serious complication of SS. But, 4 docs, including a pulmonologist and a cardiologist fluffed me off. my then internist told me there was absolutely nothing wrong with me…I guess she cannot read since the reports that she handed me clearly stated the diagnosis. When I repeated my symptoms (difficulty breathing, racing heart, severe chest pains that radiated down my arms and into my hands) her response was ‘well, I hope you can find someone to help you with that’. If I had not been so stunned by her answer, I think I would have beaten her to a pulp.
    Since almost dying by summer, 2010 (I was on oxygen 24/7, but had to strong arm one of my docs to get it for me…oh, and I live at 7500 ft), I finally did my research and had a stem cell transplant in Dec, 2010. I saw quite a great improvement. It was also obvious that my vascular system had been shutting down, taking my heart and lungs with it…and no doc could tell that???!!! I am through with docs, except as I might need something from them, such as a form filled out for my disability. I just had another stem cell transplant in October, 2011. So, now I need cataract surgery (likely related to years on Prednisone) and and reconstruction of thumbs, from the ravages of auto immune attacks on my joints. I will get these over the next few months. If I had been aware of the benefits of stem cells, I would probably not have all of the damage that I do. but, I am getting better, actually may even ‘get a life back’.
    Since I have so many things, all most docs could say is ‘you have so many things!’ with little or no assistance, either allopathic medicine or alternative practioners. I would highly recommend looking into stem cell treatments…of course, it is out of pocket cost and out of the country to get it…the US does not want people to get off of meds. People who research stem cell treatments know that it can improve/cure/put into remission, almost anything.


    • Pam Dodd Says:

      Thanks for your story, Sandra. Glad you’ve found help.

      P.S. We don’t support any one Lyme treatment or protocol on this site.


  4. Darla Says:

    Thank you so much Pam and Judith. Judith if you dont mind me asking what natural products are you on? Im on lots of vitamins supplementsand detoxng prducts. I was off antibiotics for 4 months trying natural and using Rif but I just went to Dr [initial deleted] Praise God I got in had a hard time getting appt. but door finally opened. Starting Malorone and Biaxin for co-infections. Anyway thanks for putting me on prayer list I appreciate that so much God Bless you thought and prayers are with you as well. Darla


  5. Darla Says:

    Wow my doctor had told me this. I hope and pray Drs begin to listen and look for Lyme so more people dont have to suffer this horrible disease. Im still very ill, dont feel any better, its been at a chronic stage for a little over 2 years now. Thanks for the info. God Bless. Darla


    • Pam Dodd Says:

      Welcome back, Darla. Thanks for commenting. Sorry you aren’t much better. Stick with the program; it can take years to get better if you’ve had Lyme for a long time.


    • Judith Says:

      I’m sorry you are still having such a rough time after 2 years. I am doing a natural approach with herbs to treat my Lyme and they are working well for me it seems. I am seeing either a reduction or elimination in many of my symptoms as well as in the visible coinfections. It might be because I was on a good nutritional supplementation plan for the last five years (before finding out I had Lyme) that has helped me to progress well thru my treatment. I am also taking several different detoxing herbs that are part of the Cowden condensed support program which may be why I am doing well too.

      Talk to your doctor to see if you may need more detoxing help. Just a thought. You’re on my prayer list.


  6. L.P. Says:

    I am in Washington State (Seattle’s Eastside) and am wondering IF these birds are in this area/state? I contracted Lyme with several coinfections through my cat who had a flea allergy many years ago.
    I think Lyme Disease is EVERYWHERE and I believe it is a BioWeapon.
    People seem to be UN-Concerned about Lyme….unless THEY or someone they are close to gets it….and even then it appears they simply do not think it exists as prevalently as it does.


    • Pam Dodd Says:

      The Pacific songbird flyway goes through your area, L.P. And you can also get Lyme from fleas and other biting insects besides ticks (although you won’t see anything official on that). There is some evidence that Borrelia burgdorferi has been genetically modified as a bioweapon, but again, you won’t see anything official on that.

      People don’t seem to be concerned about Lyme unless they or someone they know gets it. Unfortunately I think this is just human nature. We’re all blind to things not on our radar.

      Thanks for commenting.


  7. JoAnn Says:

    Can a person have lymes and not test positive even wnen tested twice? Please let me know. Thank you JoAm


    • Pam Dodd Says:

      Definitely. It happens to people all the time, JoAnn. Some people with Lyme never test positive. Lyme is mainly a clinical diagnosis; no test is 100% reliable. That’s why you need to see someone who knows how to diagnose Lyme correctly and treat if adequately. Thanks for asking.


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