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


The Dying Pines

Driving the back roads of New Marlborough is a favorite past time for many of our residents. When I go out, it is with camera in hand and an eye out for wildlife. Last January, as I have for years and in every season, I dropped down to York Lake to savor a moment of winter stillness. I was greeted instead by the deafening roar of logging equipment in full cry: Log trucks, chippers, and chain saws were chugging and puffing smoke. More shocking still was what I saw: The once stately copses of red pines on either side of the beach had been toppled. The tree-shaded areas equipped with barbecue grills and stone fire pits were now bare. It was only last fall that I walked under those trees and took photographs; little did I know it would be the last time.

Saddened and distressed, I was determined to find out why loggers were permitted to wreak such havoc on the beauty of York Lake. Since no part of the Sandisfield State Forest is under the jurisdiction of New Marlborough (or Sandisfield for that matter), I consulted the website of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the state agency that runs the York Lake recreation area. There, the reason for the devastation became immediately clear:

“… all red pine, the website stated, “is severely infested with red pine scale and expected to be dead within a year. The alternative of leaving the trees would result in an unacceptable public safety situation which would probably require closing the day use areas.” Red pine scale is a tiny insect that deposits its eggs under the bark of red pines. The inner bark is then eaten by the larvae as they hatch, leading to the death of the tree in about five years.

According to Conrad Ohman, Management Forester for Southern Berkshire County, notices went out with dates posted, and a public information day took place at the lake prior to the harvesting. Some 180 trees were cut down around the lake. In part to pay for their removal, nearly 1,700 trees, some of them infested red pine, others non-native Norway spruce, white pine and oak, were taken from two lots on East Hill. The Town of New Marlborough will receive $2,800, or 8 percent of the $35,000 being paid to the state by the loggers.

Over seventy-five years ago, after the excavation of York Lake, dug out by hand by the men of the CCC Camp (Civilian Conservation Corps), many of the towering pines were saplings. While it is sad that they were dying and had to come down, the logging does result in large open spaces that create more sunny areas around the beach. The removal of the Norway spruce plantation on East Hill restores the area to native trees and promotes the growth of young trees. Mr. Ohman said that, “this vegetation stage of brush, seedling, and sapling size trees is greatly under represented in our forests and serves as habitat for a great variety of birds and other wildlife.”

Many folks have fond memories from the early sixties, like mine, of fun filled summer days in New Marlborough, unencumbered by high tech distractions and busy roadways - just quiet nature. For me, the lake is one such place. At least three or four days a week, my family and any neighborhood children around, would all pile into the car and head for the lake. There would be little blanket room left on the beach if you did not arrive early. Loaded down with picnic baskets and coolers, everyone gathered to spend the day. We all knew each other, and the children would go off on explorations while the adults would pull tables together under the tall pines and set up for lunch. That grove of trees offered cooling shade from the hot sun, a place to play, eat, and rest, before returning to swim or hunt polliwogs.

The lake is a special treasure in our town, and walking out to the point to sit on the big rock with the strength of those magnificent trees surrounding you was very peaceful. Changes are inevitable, and we will become accustomed to the new look of the lake, but some of us will never forget the way it used to be.

Previously published May, 2008
New Marlborough 5 Village News.
All Photographs ©2007 Janice Stiles-Boults
"Left Behind at the Lake"
Tells the sad tale indeed.