Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, CT) and Keene (NH) Sentinel. I don’t always post my columns to this site, but this is an important topic so I figured I would. Thanks for supporting http://www.BirdsofNewEngland.com
I was stretched out on the lounge chair on the deck, binoculars and camera on one side, a fresh cup of coffee on the other. The sun was warm on this particular late morning. (The sun is that bright, hot thing in the daytime sky, just in case anybody forgot with all this gray, wet weather we’ve been having.)
Suddenly an American Goldfinch appeared out of nowhere. It didn’t attack the feeders from the flanks like the goldfinches and most other birds usually do. He flew right over my head and approached the feeders directly. His flight was awkward; not at all the graceful undulating flight I’m used to seeing from goldfinches. If it were Saturday night on Washington Street in SoNo, I’d swear this bird was drunk out of his gourd. He staggered up and down with a jerky flight and eventually made it to a perch on the yellow feeder offering Nyjer seeds.
Seeds. Good idea, I thought. No more fermented crab apples for this guy. He needs to sober up.
Then I realized the true reason this bird had a staggering instead of graceful flight. He turned his left side toward me and I noticed that his eye was completely puffed over. He had to be completely blind in that eye. The bird shifted on the feeder and I saw his right eye. It was better, but still puffed, crusty and sore. At least it wasn’t completely obscured.
I had seen plenty of House Finches with Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis (an avian version of pink eye), but this was the first time I had seen a goldfinch afflicted with the disease. They are both from the finch family so it made sense that goldfinches would be susceptible, too. It turns out that House Finches, American Goldfinches, Purple Finches and Evening Grosbeaks are all affected by the disease. Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis is not spread to humans.
To me, it hit home more after seeing the goldfinch struggle to find its way to a feeder perch. American Goldfinches are native to New England and a beloved bird by most birdwatchers. I like House Finches as much as the next person, but they are native to western U.S. and were introduced to the East as pet birds. “Hollywood Finches,” as they were marketed. Eventually some escaped or were released and they established a wild population. This population has grown to the point it has become detrimental to some native New England species.
That said, it’s still painful to see a House Finch inflicted with the disease. They are so helpless and there’s not much that can be done for it.
When I was in college I had a severe case of pink eye. Even with an advanced stage of the disease, I was able to use an ointment that cleared up the condition in about three days. Birds are not as lucky. In fact, as the disease progresses, they become less able to find food and protect themselves from predators. It’s only a matter of time until they are completely blind.
The disease, however, is curable — but the birds need human intervention. The vast majority of birds with the disease will eventually perish. If the bird can be caught by someone, however, the bird may be taken to a wildlife rehabilitator for treatment. In fact, Peter Reid, the assistant director of Wildlife in Crisis, said his business receives “a couple birds a week” with the disease. Wildlife in Crisis is nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation facility in Weston. It cares for various birds and animals that have suffered injuries with the hope of releasing them back into the wild.
“Feeders can be a nexus for spreading it,” he said. “The birds can become functionally blind and at that point they need care. It’s not something that takes care of itself.”
Reid said the finches do respond well to an ointment and can be cured. The birds are quarantined while they are being treated at the facility.
The birds must first be captured and that can be the tricky part. Birds with the disease allow for a much closer approach by humans as, obviously, they don’t see anyone coming. A soft towel or cloth can be used to grab the bird, which can then be placed in a shoe box or pet carrier and brought to Wildlife in Crisis. Reid said if the bird is captured in the evening, you can put a bottle cap of water and food in the box and brought to the facility in the morning.
For more information about Wildlife in Crisis, visit http://www.wildlifeincrisis.org. The site includes a section in which several common wildlife questions are answered.
Humans can also help slow the spread of the disease by keeping birdfeeders clean. Reid suggests washing feeders every week with a diluted bleach solution.
After I saw my afflicted goldfinch (it flew before I could catch it) I took down the feeder, dumped out the remaining Nyjer seed (yes, that stuff is very expensive), and gave the feeder a good cleaning and allowed it to air dry. I did not see the bird in question again. If I did see it again, I would have had to dump the seed and clean the feeder immediately again. Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, just like pink eye in humans, is highly contagious.
So keep an eye on the birds that visit your feeders. We feed birds to help them, not facilitate the spread of nasty diseases. Cleaning your feeders frequently can go a long way toward stopping this disease.