Blue jays in Brackley Beach

There are more questions than answers concerning a parasite that is killing finches and the precautionary measures called for to prevent its spread have affected at least one local feed mill.

“The sales (bird feed) have dropped off a bit but there is a very good reason to have it drop off,” Mary Grant, owner of Cardigan Feed Services said.

The reason is a microscopic parasite, Trichomonas gallinae that buries itself in the lining of a bird’s throat and mouth. Painful lesions make it difficult for the bird to swallow food or water and vomitting, diarrhoea and starvation will almost certainly kill an infected bird.

Finches, such as the pine siskin, goldfinch and purple finch appear to be the species most susceptible and it is being suggested by bird and wildlife scientists that people clean and disinfect bird feeders often or take feeders down for the summer months to minimize the possibility of transmission of the parasite.

Fief deBie, a wildlife technician at the Atlantic Veterinary College said the parasites don’t over winter, so she doesn’t think the outbreak, which is more severe in the Maritime Provinces this year, has been caused by a milder winter. In fact, she pointed out how little is actually known about how the parasite operates and why it seems to target certain species of birds.

“Transmission is a bit of a mystery,” Ms deBie said. “Pigeons are carriers; that’s the same in the United Kingdom,” where the parasite is thought to originate. She said the quick onset of warm, humid weather may be a factor in the higher number of sick birds being reported.

Dead birds have been collected in the Mt Stewart and Dundas areas. Twenty purple finches and one goldfinch have all been confirmed to have the parasite. Because birds are shy, Ms deBie said there is no way of knowing if there are a lot more dead or sick finches out there, or where other pockets of the illness might be.

She said sick birds are easy to identify. “The birds will be lethargic, not flying away, and fluffed up. They have wet feathers and debris around their beaks. Sometimes they will look thin. Sometimes you can see them throwing up.”

“If you see signs like these, take your feeders down right away,” Ms deBie advised.

Infected birds will quickly transmit the parasite to healthy birds coming to the same feeder and the contaminated food may also be carried back to nests, infecting baby birds. A 5-10 per cent bleach solution should be used to disinfect feeders.

“Not feeding them in the summer might be good to consider,” she said.

Ms Grant, from the Cardigan mill, said she’s taken her own feeders down for couple of weeks. An avid bird feeder, she doesn’t want to cause harm to the species at risk, but she also wonders about the other summer visitors, the jays, blackbirds, doves, grossbeaks and woodpeckers that actively feed in her yard all year.

“We don’t want people to stop feeding birds altogether,” Ms Grant said. “All the species are paying the penalty for not feeding.”

Ms Grant knows a lot of the birds at her feeder are taking the food back to their nests and have come to expect her feeders to be full. “I have 15 varieties of birds coming to my feeders at home. What happens if you take it all away?”

Ricky Birt, owner of Eastern Feed and Seed Services in Souris, said he hasn’t noticed any changes in seed sales or heard comments from customers about sick birds.

Brenda MacLean, seasonal manager at the Stewart & Beck Ltd in Montague reported the same, although she said she is watching the birds at her own feeder for signs of illness. Her customers are also keeping a sharp eye on their own feathered visitors.

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