A Potentially Lethal House-Finch disease
Is Spreading to Other Bird Species

Last week, my neighbor Arlyn Hoberman found a small bird just standing in the road, unable to fly. On closer examination, it was evident that the bird had impaired vision, as it had crusty growths around the eyes. Arlyn rescued the bird and brought it to a wildlife rehabilitator in Falls Village, who informed her that the bird was suffering from Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, a contagious bacterial disease commonly known as house-finch eye disease. (see sidebar: “Injured Animals – and the Law”) This disease is caused by a pathogen common in turkeys and chickens, and it has killed millions of birds in North America.

Initially reported only in house-finch populations in the early 1990s, the disease has spread to other members of the finch (Fringillidae) family, such as goldfinches, purple finches, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, dark-eyed juncos, and house sparrows, and some non-finch species, such as blue jays, and black-capped chickadees. The most noticeable symptom of Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis is red, swollen eyes that may be runny or crusted over. The bird may be so infected that it is totally blind and unable to care for itself. Bird watchers may also notice that infected birds seem lethargic, do not fly off with the flock, and do not feed. Diseased birds are often seen repeatedly wiping their faces on branches and feeders. The bacteria are spread between finches gathered at bird feeders, especially when large numbers congregate during cold weather. It is recommended that all feeders be disinfected on a regular basis.

The Cornell website provides interesting background to this story, noting that house finches are not native to eastern North America, but until the 1940s were found only in western states, and were sold in pet stores in the east as “Hollywood finches.” Because today’s eastern house finch populations originated from a small number of released birds, the website notes, “they are highly inbred, exhibit low genetic diversity and, may therefore be more susceptible to disease than other bird species native to the East.”

Reported by Janice Boults
New Marlborough 5 Village News
September, 2009

Injured Animals – and the Law

The Environmental Police are the enforcement arm of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. In a recent interview, Melissa Hamm, a twenty-two-year veteran of the environmental police, told me that her colleagues are not interested in prosecuting anyone who is simply trying to help. They have a more important task --- putting a stop to poachers and those who are killing bears for their gall bladders, which can be sold for a very high price and is often used as a means to support a poacher’s drug habit.

Meanwhile, those who come to the aid of an injured animal should bear in mind that it is both a federal and a state offense for a citizen to keep any wildlife animal in their possession, except for the time required to deliver the animal to a qualified veterinarian or rehabilitation specialist – with this important qualification: the animal must not be transported over the state line.

Hamm assured me that no state official is going to object to a person’s caring briefly for a bird that is stunned by flying against a windowpane, for example; all the bird is likely to need is a bit of dark and quiet to recover. Nor will an officer object to a person removing an injured bird from the road or other dangerous spot, or taking it to a vet.

Two South Berkshire clinics listed on the Fisheries and Wildlife web site as qualified to treat injured wildlife are All Caring Animal Center, at 413-528-8020; and Bilmar Veterinary Services, at 413-528-1291.

Special care, however, must be exercised in the case of raptors -- owls, hawks, falcons, eagles. They are very susceptible to bonding to human caregivers, making rehabilitation and a return to the wild difficult. Furthermore, they do not have the ability to process food in the same manner as songbirds; as a result, many are killed by improper feeding. Only a rehab specialist will know what to feed the raptor and how to help it return to the wild.

A final note: any dead or sick or injured animals – particularly migratory species of birds -- should be reported to the Fish and Wildlife center as soon as possible. This is because there is a very important monitoring program for the study of endemic diseases. Help or advice can be obtained by calling 800-632-8075. I received much additional help from Marion Larson at the head office in Boston: 617-626-1809. Ms. Larson is the education and communication director of the State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a former member of the Environmental Police.

Reported by Charlie Parton
New Marlborough 5 Village News
September, 2009

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