Topics on This Page:

What to Do if You Observe MG in Birds

MG at Bird Feeders

Suggested Guidelines for Bird Feeders

Treating Finches in the Wild or at Bird Feeders

Nest Box and Purple Martin House Precautions

Reporting Cases in New Areas or in New Songbird Species

The Cornell Lab's House Finch Study

What to Do if You Find or Catch a Bird You Suspect has MG

Finding or Catching a Finch (or Any Other Songbird) with MG

 



What to Do if You Observe MG in Birds



MG at Bird Feeders

If you observe house finches or goldfinches or for that matter any disease in the birds visiting your feeders, contact your state wildlife office. There are two issues here. First, if MG has not arrived in your area, reporting your sighting may help confirm its arrival. Secondly, your state wildlife office can help come up with a plan for coping with the disease at your feeders.  

If MG in particular has not been confirmed in your area (which is presently true of most western areas of the US), your state wildlife office, along with the National Wildlife Health Center, may deem it important enough to want to try to catch one or more of these birds for testing in order to confirm its arrival in your geographic region or state. Your state wildlife office may offer to help capture infected birds and arrange for their testing. If that proves impractical, check with them to see if they may still be interested in obtaining photos of your birds from you. 

[In the event you observe songbird species other than house finches or goldfinches with symptoms of MG, especially where MG has already documented locally, these too would be of great interest to your state wildlife office and the NWHC. Again, contact your state wildlife office in such cases for advice.]

Otherwise, if MG has already be confirmed in your area, in all likelihood your state wildlife office (or other qualified avian wildlife specialists) can review your feeder situation with you in hopes of finding strategies for coping with the further spread of the disease at your feeders, with your specific situation in mind. As advised by the US Fish and Wildlife Service: 

If you observe sick or dead birds at feeders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still recommends that you suspend use of these feeders until the cause of illness is determined.

If you choose to continue using feeders, the Service recommends that you clean these feeders weekly and disinfect them with household bleach, and report sighting of sick birds to your state wildlife agency. The Service also recommends that both the feeder and the areas under the feeder be kept clean of waste food and bird droppings. Bird feeders with rough surfaces, cracks, or crevices are difficult to sanitize and should not be used. The location of the feeder should be changed at regular intervals. Addition of more feeders may reduce crowding and minimize interaction between birds at feeders.

- US Fish and Wildlife Service, draft Briefing Statement, August 1996

[A copy of this document is available as a text file; see the "Web Links and Other Resources" page.]

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Suggested Guidelines for Bird Feeders:

If you know MG is affecting the birds at your feeders, these guidelines are among those most often suggested by wildlife specialists:

[See also the Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Center web site for further information on dealing with MG at bird feeders; select "Current Concerns" in their index, and scroll down to the section on "Conjunctivitis in House Finches."]

There remains one last factor to be considered here. Virtually every avian disease specialist I have spoken to has mentioned that MG does not survive long once outside its host's body. The question is, "How long can it survive and still remain a potential contagion?" If feeders are in fact being contaminated with the MG organism, this question has real implications for efforts aimed at keeping feeders clean and disinfected. Thus far, I have gotten only one reply to this question, from a wildlife disease professional. From what he understood, the MG organism could survive outside its host for up to 72 hours. If MG can die within a matter of days (or less) and yet still be spread as extensively as it has, to the extent bird feeders may spread the disease, periodic cleanings may need to be done more frequently than once a week, particularly if MG is a serious problem at ones feeders. As was noted in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune (see MG in the Media, on the "Web Links and Other Resources" page for date and title), one woman goes so far as to swab her tube feeder portals with alcohol on a daily basis.

 

Treating Finches in the Wild or at Bird Feeders

Although there are medications some rehabilitators are using to treat finches with MG, under no circumstances should anyone attempt to treat the birds visiting their feeders by putting medications in bird seed or bird baths. There are two reasons why this can be dangerous. First, there is no guarantee this will work. Unlike birds being treated in wildlife centers where medication dosses can be strictly controlled, in the wild, where birds are free to come and go and otherwise may travel over wide areas, there is no way to assure a sick bird will get the needed dosage to combat the infection. More ominously, when infectious illnesses are only partially treated, many contagious organisms will survive, growing tolerant, and go on to reproduce. Over time these may develop into antimicrobic resistant organisms, perhaps becoming resistant to present medications entirely.

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Nest Box and Purple Martin House Precautions

Almost every discussion I have seen on the transmission of MG among finches and its possible spread to other songbirds has, quite appropriately, focused on bird feeders as a primary location for disease spread. Yet in theory, anywhere where infected birds come in close contact with others could result in its further spread to new species. One such area might possibly include artificial nest housings, such as bluebird nest boxes and purple martin houses, which house finches are known on occasion to use. In the case of bluebird nest boxes, since these can be used only by one nesting pair at a time, the risk of MG's spread from finches to other species interested in the same nest box would probably not be very great (except perhaps when and if the two came into physical contact fighting over a nest box). However it might well be prudent to give any nest box used by house finches a good cleaning and disinfecting* following their nestlings having fledged, when the empty nest is removed (whether the finches evidenced symptoms of MG or not). This would help assure that any bluebirds, tree swallows, house wrens or other species interested in using that box subsequently would not pick up any lingering MG organisms, short-lived as they are outside their host, that might still lurk in the box after the finches have left.

Finches nesting in purple martin houses, especially if martins occupy compartments nearby, present a much more difficult situation. First of all, it should be pointed out that I have not come across any confirmed cases of MG in purple martins and not heard of any suspected cases even being officially reported (though one experienced observer did mention to me having recently seen a martin with symptoms similar to MG). Thus my concern here is essentially precautionary. It is also very important to remember, in any case, that house finches are protected by federal law and their nests can not be removed without the proper permit, not even if the finches show symptoms of MG and are nesting beside active martin nests in adjacent compartments. Currently, the only action a purple martin landlord can take in this regard is to contact their state wildlife or fish and game office and ask them to remove any nests of infected finches in their martin housing, provided their state itself has the needed permit to do so (additionally, as is true for bluebird nest boxes, once the finches have fledged, it would be prudent to give that compartment a good cleaning and disinfecting*). 

At this point what is important is that purple martin landlords simply be alert to this possibility - however remote it may be at this time - and to report any sightings of purple martins with symptoms of MG to their state wildlife office and/or to either the National Wildlife Health Center or the Cornell Labs House Finch Study (the web sites for these latter two organizations can be found on the "Web Links and Other Resources" page; see also next two sections, below for information about reporting new sightings of MG, and about the Cornell Lab's House Finch Study). An MG irruption in a purple martin colony, while so far unknown, could be very serious in view of the almost poultry-like densities of many martin colonies; martin landlords need to be aware of this potential.

[I have written a soon to be published article on this subject for the newsletter of the Purple Martin Society of Illinois. I hope to be able to add the full text of this article to this web site in the near future.]

*For cleaning nest boxes and compartments, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommends using a warm detergent solution, rinse, wash with a mild bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach), and finally rinse well with water.

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Reporting Cases in New Areas or in New Songbird Species

The first place to contact in reporting possible sightings of MG either involving its entry into new geographical areas or its possible jumping to new wild songbirds beyond house finches and American goldfinches is, in general, your state wildlife office. Such offices typically will know if MG has been seen already in your area and can hopefully advise you further, if needed. Additionally, if MG has not yet been confirmed in your area, or has not been found in the songbird species you are calling them to report, they may be very interested in helping capture any such birds for testing purposes. Check the state government listings of the white pages of your local phone book (many state governments also have web sites that might provide such information).

If your state wildlife office is unable to assist you, both the National Wildlife Health Center and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology might still be very interested in any information you can provide to them about such new sightings of MG. These can be reached at:

National Wildlife Health Center
Biological Resources Division
6006 Schroeder Road
Madison, WI 53711

phone: (608) 271-4640
fax: (608) 264-5431

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
House Finch Disease Survey
159 Sapsucker Woods Rd.
Ithaca, NY 14850.

phone: 607-254-BIRD
Project Feeder Watch Phone: 1-800-843-BIRD

 


The Cornell Lab's House Finch Study

Back in 1994 as MG was spreading rapidly across the mid-Atlantic and East Coast, with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology 's Project Feeder Watch program already in place, along with its network of observers nationwide, it was realized that for the first time it would be possibly to actually track the spread of a new wildlife disease. Thus was born the Cornell Lab's House Finch Study. For those interested in participating in this effort, whether you have swollen-eyed finches at your feeders or not, contact the Cornell Lab's House Finch Study. [See the "Web Links and Other Resources" page for URL.]

For those interested in learning more, the Cornell Lab's Project Feeder Watch was the subject of an article appearing Scientific American - the Amateur Scientist. The article briefly mentions of the House Finch Study. It can be found at http://www.sciam.com/0497issue/0497amsci.html.

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What to Do if You Find or Catch a Bird You Suspect has MG



Finding or Catching a Finch (or Any Other Songbird) with MG

If you observe a finch or any other species with symptoms of MG, or for that matter any sick or injured bird, and you think you may be able to catch it and want to see it treated or have it tested, the Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research Center suggests the following:

Also, while avian disease experts agree MG is not contagious to people, it is always wise to wash your hands after handling any animal, especially one with a disease.

If you are somehow able to catch a house finch or other bird you suspect has MG (or, again, any other sick or injured bird), contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife veterinarian immediately, for both your sake and theirs. Remember, finches and most other songbirds are protected by federal law and they need to be brought to those legally authorized to possess them as soon as possible. If you cannot find a rehabilitator or wildlife veterinarian near you who will take songbirds, contact your state wildlife office for assistance or your local humane society. You may also want to visit the wildlife rehabilitators WLREHAB web site, which provides further guidelines and advice for such cases. See also the section here on "Treatment Issues for Rehabilitators" for further information.  

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