"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

New research links house finch behavior at feeders with the spread of eye disease

A lesser goldfinch shows signs of eye disease.  Photo taken Sept. 2011 by J.J. Meyer
From Cornell Lab's Project FeederWatch Blog Sept. 23, 2015: 

New research about feeder birds and House Finch eye disease (mycoplasmal conjunctivitis) reveals an interesting link between behavior and disease transmission. Previous evidence suggested that the bacterium was spread by birds that had the most social connections. A research team from Virginia Tech outfitted wild flocks of House Finches with transmitter chips that recorded their feeder behavior and discovered that the birds that visited feeders with the greatest frequency were the most likely to contract and spread the eye disease.

Does this mean we should stop feeding birds?

No. House finch eye disease has been present since the early 1990s and biologists think it has reached somewhat of an equilibrium in the eastern House Finch population; only 5-10% of individuals are thought to be infected, and House Finch populations seem to be doing well overall. So, you don’t have to stop feeding birds, but there are some precautions you can take if you are concerned about the disease at your feeders (read on!).

What should you do?

This research indicates that feeders facilitate the spread of the disease when infected individuals spend a lot of time on feeders. So, there are several things you can do:
  • Keep on the lookout for sick birds, and participate in Project FeederWatch so you can contribute to the growing dataset about the spread of this disease.
  • If you see a sick finch, disinfect your feeders. If you wish, you may remove feeders for a few days to encourage sick birds to disperse.
  • Clean your feeders on a regular basis, even if you do not notice sick birds.
Find more information about the disease and detailed recommendations for cleaning feeders at Project FeederWatch/Cornell Lab.

Read more about the Virginia Tech research study.
Reference: Adelman JS, Moyers SC, Farine DR, & Hawley DM. (2015) Feeder use predicts both acquisition and transmission of a contagious pathogen in a North American songbird. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20151429.

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