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Deadly parasite affecting birds

Specialists say seed feeders may be to blame

Published on July 14, 2017

Goldfinches are being affected by a contagious avian parasite that prevents the birds from swallowing.

TRURO, N.S. – Photos and videos of sick finches have been popping up around the Maritimes, leaving experts confused and imploring the public to remove bird feeders from their yards.

“People should know that birds are not the cleanest animals in the world,” said David Currie, president of the Nova Scotia Bird Society.

“Even some diseases like salmonella can be transmitted through improper cleaning or maintenance of feeders. We’re asking people to take them down, clean them and leave them down until the fall.”

The spread of trichomoniasis, a contagious avian parasite that prevents birds from swallowing, affects songbirds every year around July, but this year reports of goldfinches and purple finches being affected are at an all-time high.

“It isn’t a typical summer for this disease. We don’t know if it is weather related and there doesn’t seem to be a specific area where this started,” said Currie.

“There are a few reports in the Yarmouth and Cape Breton areas, and another way down on the eastern shore. For a bird to go that far away from where they were infected is a stretch, so I think there is something else at work here.”

While the parasite doesn’t affect humans, dogs or cats, the N.S. Bird Society advises people not to handle the sick birds as it can be transmitted to pet birds, and is often fatal.

Transmission can occur through saliva, regurgitation or the feces of an infected bird, and can also be transferred to other birds such as chickens.

Infected birds are often found on the ground, seeming tame or disoriented, and may have matted or wet feathers due to regurgitation. They are often approachable, but should not be handled without gloves.

“There is ultimately nothing that can be done for the birds in this state,” said Currie.

“The best thing to do is move the bird into a secluded area outside, so it can’t infect others, and let it pass on its own. The parasite is fatal unless symptoms are caught early on, but that is very unlikely.”

While Currie is unsure of the source of the spread, he suggested seed feeders are to blame.

“I don’t think there is any benefit to feeding birds all through the summer,” he said.

“There is no biological evidence that shows it helps them, but there is evidence they could use a little extra help during the winter. There is more and more people feeding during the summer, and it isn’t for the birds’ benefit, it’s really just for us.”