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Mystery as hundreds of Aussie birds suddenly fall from the sky

A rise in cases of lorikeet paralysis syndrome (LPS) is worrying and can often lead to death if untreated.

Experts and animal carers are stumped by a mystery illness plaguing the east coast with so far hundreds of birds dropping from the sky, unable to fly.

More than 200 rainbow lorikeets were taken into care around Grafton in northern NSW this week after suddenly becoming paralysed, with many more throughout Queensland also struck down by the mysterious condition known as lorikeet paralysis syndrome (LPS).

Little is understood about the unusual condition generally occurring between October and June, with cases peaking between December and February. According to RSPCA Queensland, the exact cause of LPS remains unknown. However, a plant toxin is thought to be the cause but has not yet been identified.

WIRES Wildlife vet Dr Tania Bishop said it also appears to be weather-related. "We are seeing a large increase in cases lately due to the sudden change in weather from drought to extreme rain events," she told Yahoo News Australia.

Many rainbow lorikeets in a box after being taken into care with lorikeet paralysis syndrome (LPS).
Hundreds of rainbow lorikeets have been taken into care due to a little-known illness called lorikeet paralysis syndrome (LPS). Supplied: WIRES volunteer Robyn Gray.

'Really bad problem'

A wildlife carer from Ipswich, Laura Moon, told Yahoo it's a "really bad problem at the moment" claiming "thousands of lorikeets are falling from the skies" seemingly without warning. Meanwhile, a local woman from Oxley, a southwest suburb of Brisbane, stumbled upon a sick lorikeet on the road last week.

At first, she thought "it had a run-in with a car" and that it was dead, but a vet later suspected it was a case of LSP. "I realised it was still breathing so I wrapped it up and took it home," she told Yahoo. "The bird appeared to wake momentarily and return to an unconscious state. We took it straight to a local vet that evening."

Increase of sick birds in care

Dr Bishop said affected birds are usually found on the ground "looking unbalanced and can’t fly with no sign of trauma or impact". "As the disease progresses birds lose control of all limbs and the back, their voice changes and can’t stand, blink or swallow," she said.

Left: Sick rainbow lorikeet inside box with blue blanket. Right: Information about Lorikeet paralysis syndrome (LPS)
A Brisbane woman stumbled upon a sick bird which she first thought was dead. Source: Facebook/WIRES

Robyn Gray, the Clarence Valley avian coordinator for WIRES, has more than 80 birds in her care. "A lot of them don't make it because when they come in, they are underweight and malnourished and very sick birds," she told the ABC.

She said "no one can really give a definitive answer" about what causes the sudden illness which was first observed way back in 2010.

"It is a true mystery," said the International Society for Animal Forensic Sciences this week, but one that's problematic. "Lorikeet Paralysis Syndrome is a serious threat to our iconic lorikeets and needs immediate intervention," the RSPCA warned.

Aussies urged to act quickly

When found early, LPS is treatable, but weeks of intensive care are required with full rehabilitation taking upwards of several months. Dr Bishop said getting them to veterinary care as soon as possible is vital.

RSPCA Queensland said anyone who finds a lorikeet that’s unable to fly, has varying degrees of paralysis, seems wobbly, or is unable to blink or swallow should seek help immediately. The condition is not infectious to people or other birds.

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