My name is Jim Cook. Although I recently turned 45 and have been interested in birds since childhood, I put up my first bird feeder, at my home in Germantown, MD, only in May, 1993. The first bird to visit my feeder was, fittingly enough, a female house finch. Little did I know at the time what she and her species (not to mention other bird feeders like myself and wildlife officials) would be facing just seven months later - or the roll I and my feeders would play in the events to come.
The first reports of which I am aware of people observing finches suddenly arriving at their feeder with swollen eyes occurred in mid-to-late January, 1994. I was one of them, perhaps even the first. By mid-March the numbers of infected finches I was seeing at my feeders had become alarming. People more expert than I had suggested that my birds probably had avian pox. But after researching avian diseases for some weeks, I finally found the clue I needed to exclude that possibility. Pox, one report noted, is typically spread via insect bites, such as mosquitoes. This was the heart of a brutal, icy winter - there were no mosquitoes outside. Finally, a friend who owned the store where I got my birdseed suggested I call my local state wildlife office. The state naturalists at nearby Seneca State Park in turn referred me to someone who had just left the US Fish & Wildlife Service for the US Department of Agriculture, a federal expert on avian diseases they referred to as "the bird man."
This gentleman had not heard of symptoms quite like those I was describing to him, at least not in songbirds, and he asked me to try to get some pictures of these swollen-eyed house finches for him. I ran off an entire roll of film that day and sent them to him over night (some of these photos appear in the previous pages). The next afternoon he called and said he'd gotten my pictures and that they were "Very graphic." He added "I've never seen anything like this." He then told me he planned to forward my photos the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI. A few days later I received a call from Dr.Kimberli Miller at the NWHC, calling on behalf of Dr. Katheryn Converse, not only telling me that they, too, had never seen anything like the birds in my photos before, but asking for my negatives as well. As Dr. Miller recently said in a letter to me, "Little did I know when you contacted [us] three years ago that you were reporting a new disease in finches."
For the remainder of 1994 I assisted first my state Department of Agriculture and then the Maryland State Dept. of Natural Resources in helping capture specimen finches afflicted with the disease for testing to help identify the organism responsible. A local wildlife veterinarian would take the birds I brought him from my yard and prepare them for overnight delivery to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. Later in the year I delivered a dozen more house finches to the SCWDS staff, who had set up a field lab at nearby Seneca State Park.
For my efforts, the Wildlife Division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources presented me with their Certificate of Appreciation a few months later. And just earlier this year, Dr. John Fischer of the SCWDS sent me a note, calling my attention to the CDC/EID article mentioned here throughout the previous pages. My finches (including a goldfinch I had caught and had sent to them through my local vet in February, 1996) had played an important part in the findings of the study conducted by Dr. Fischer and his colleagues. His note to me mentioned that they had put a line in the article's acknowledgements, referencing the help of "private landowners" - that that had been put in with me in mind. For that I thank him and the other authors of this study. Together, these two distinctions comprise the only evidence of any sort of expertise I can offer in having creating this web site. I never even finished high school biology. ;-)
Since 1995 I have been trying to keep up with news of the disease and recent research findings about it for both bird feeders and wildlife rehabilitators. Most of my efforts have been on America Online and the WLREHAB listserv, although recently I have also been sharing what news I have with those on the Rec.birds newsgroup and BirdChat listserv. I will continue doing so as long as there are bird feeders and rehabilitators out there who find themselves confronting this disease and in frantic need of information - for both them and for their suffering little creatures. After three years, the sight of a house finch, eyes swollen shut and crusted over, hovering at a bird feeder - its feet trying to find a perch it knows from experience must be there but can no longer see - is still "absolutely heartbreaking."
June 1, 1997
I have had MG at my feeders almost continually since 1994, until just this past winter. This past January, a mockingbird essentially took over my feeders and would not let other birds use them - at all. For the next three months finches were rarely seen at my feeders. Finally, the mockingbird eventually ceased guarding my feeders and the finches and other birds have slowly returned. Between January and late May, 1997, I have seen only a three finches with MG, the last of which was near the end of April, weeks ago. I do not know if this is any indication that MG in my area is slowing down on its own, or whether this absence of MG resulted from the mockingbird's essentially shutting down of a major local congregating point, breaking up the flocks that used to come by. Either way, it is good to see healthy, button-eyed finches once again.
Lastly, for those who have been touched by the suffering and deaths of so many house finches, and now goldfinches, as a result of this disease, I would like to leave you with a more uplifting story, the story of a female house finch I named "Beakmin."
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© 1997 James Cook
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