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House Finch Disease: Treating Wild Birds

Saturday, April 4, 2015

I've said it before. The social media world is a weird, weird world. I say that as someone who's up to her neck in it and part of the problem, for sure. One reason I hang out on Facebook is to keep sending life support to my blog. I try to catch eyeballs with a photo and some kind of kicky catchphrase to cause said eyeballs' owner to click through and land here. Because this is home, where my heart lies.

 I believe in blogging, but I believe in blogging on a blog. I believe in telling the story, and then the rest of the story. I see a lot of people trying to blog on Facebook, posting serial status updates with lots of photos and long paragraphs of text. I wish they'd blog instead. Facebook is a place where people go to let their ADD run wild. They're there for tiny sips, not a whole flagon or a neck-deep bath, for Pete's sake. Facebook killed a lot of blogs, but it's also keeping mine alive, thank you very much, and the dance I do to try to get people here for the whole story is a delicate one.

Probably 95% of what goes on in people's reactions to things they see on Facebook is no deeper than, "Oh that's nice. Isn't that cute. I like that." I get that and respect it. I don't expect a lot more than that, and I try to accommodate people in their search for quick hits of beauty and yes, cuteness, because we all need quick hits of nice to get us through our day. I don't discuss politics. I don't rant. I don't post anything unless I think it's worth sharing and will lift people up, help them reflect on something I find meaningful, or give them a smile. I believe in positivity, in noticing small things that others may overlook, and in sharing that. If that sounds a bit Pollyanna, that's fine with me. It's the only way I feel comfortable sharing so much of what goes on in my head.

That said, I save my best stories, photos, thoughts and essays for the blog. I put teasers up on Facebook, just fun stuff that you can take in a quick bite. I try to bring the eyeballs over here, with varying success. I'm lucky to get 20 "likes" on a blogpost link. Sad to say, 40 likes is huge. I can hope that some percentage of those 40 likers actually clicked through to the blog.

 Sometimes things blow up. That's when it gets weird.

On March 25, I went out to fill my dome feeder and there was a male American goldfinch sitting in it, eyes closed, all puffed up. I looked at him there, knowing he likely had the bacterial conjunctivitis/respiratory illness called House Finch Disease and not really wanting to do what I thought I should do. Ugh. I hate having to play God with small lives. I reached a tentative finger toward him and he climbed onto it. At that point, my stupid heart kicked my smart head in.  I hate it when that happens.

 I closed my fingers around him so he couldn't get loose, and thought, "I should just wring his neck right now and be done with him. This is a bad, bad disease." I walked in circles, thinking about what I should do. "I need to wring this bird's neck." I started to, hesitated, remembering how he'd climbed onto my finger, this wild bird who couldn't see. Why would he do that, unless he was asking for help?

 And instead of wringing his neck, headed for the medicine cabinet. I had been that close.

 My primitive thought process went like this. "What have I got in here? Hmm, here's some doxycycline. That's like tetracycline. And doxycycline and tetracycline are useful for Lyme disease. Maybe it'll work on Mycoplasma."

Completely off the cuff, uninformed, unpolluted by any real information. Just a guess. Thinking that doing something here to try to help is better than doing nothing. Or better than killing him. Maybe. I'll get back to that.

 I ground up a doxycycline tablet and put a pinch of it in some just-mixed parrot handfeeding formula, took the goldfinch out of the paper bag I'd stored him in, waited until he tried to bite my finger, jammed a syringe in his bill, and force-fed the little guy some spiked food. And then, when his eyes had begun to improve that same afternoon, I was so elated that, like the attention-seeking compulsive sharer that I am, I posted about it. Note that I omitted the part about contemplating his murder.

Please note "likes" and shares. Huge doesn't begin to describe the response to this post. 162 comments and counting. 1080 likes? Whaaat??  Even my son likes it. Nothing I have ever posted (and I've been on Facebook since 2009) has even come close. A supercute bat I was caring for maybe got 400 likes. This was off the hook.

Upon capture March 25, the bad eye. I wasn't at all sure he could still see out of it.

Not sure why the post blew up. I think it spoke to that part of all of us that sees something pitiful and wants to help. Or is glad there is something someone could do to help. Maybe he's just cute enough. Or maybe the sunny prognosis I forecast sucked people in.  There's something you can do for house finch disease?? God knows there's too much bad news raining down on us every day. But 1080 likes for a gloopy-eyed goldfinch?

March 27, the bad eye after three Doxycycline treatments. Hey! It's getting better!

By the afternoon of March 27, Booger, as I named him, was feeling so much better that I was having a hell of a time catching him in his finch cage. He was ricocheting off the bars.  No stepping up onto my finger for him! And when I did catch him to administer his oral treatment, he ducked his head and clamped his slippery conical bill closed so tightly it was all I could do to slip my right thumbnail in the side and pry it open. Not easy to do while also holding a syringe in your right hand. You have to hold that slippery conical bill open with your left thumb and index finger while repositioning the syringe in your right hand into business mode and somehow get the medicated food down his esophagus and not his trachea. And this is not anything that a second person can help you do. Even if I had someone around to help. 

It looks horrible, and is. It's actually unsustainable to manhandle a
 tiny wild bird like that over and over in order to dose it. They figure out how to thwart you and thwart you they do. Or you hurt them trying to catch them. It's not good.

I could not keep this up for ten days. I couldn't keep it up for another second.

I had been reading up on Mycoplasma gallisepticum online, and found out that it's sensitive to tetracycline. OK, then. Let's figure out a way to get tetracycline into him without roping, throwing and wrassling him every day. I started searching online for a source for water-soluble tetracycline, and found that my local feed co-op carries it by the bag for use in water for sick swine, calves, and poultry. Bingo!

I bought a $5.95, 6.4 oz. bag of tetracycline, enough to make 100 gallons of solution, and used just a tiny pinch in Booger's jar lid of water, refreshing it twice daily. I tasted it first to make sure it wasn't bitter. Nope. No taste at all. I had no idea if I was even close to the proper dose. Again, seat of the pants stuff. But better than doing nothing, I hoped. Or wringing his neck.

Booger drank and bathed in the water, and continued to improve by the hour. 

Thank God I didn't have to catch him and manhandle him any more! I could keep him clean, well-fed and medicated until he was all better. Or, sort of all better. That was a good thing to have learned, that I could lay my hands on an antibiotic without having to take a goldfinch to a veterinarian. 
Because the veterinarians in my county quite wisely refuse to admit wild patients. They really have no choice but to say no.
If word got out that they ever did, even once, that is all they would do. And 90% of the people bringing the animals and birds in would expect free care. Because, they reason, I don't own this animal; I just found it, and I can't afford to pay for its care. Somebody has to care for it. How about you? The need here is enormous, and there is no one to answer it, because anyone who tries just gets rolled under in a never-ending wave of wild orphans and broken raptors.

Katdoc, who had been helpful in the public comment thread with suggestions on antibiotics, sent me a private message:

I'm glad Booger is responding to the treatment for his Mycoplasma conjunctivitis. It sounds like he will soon be feeling so good that he is impossible to catch and treat. That is both good and bad. I don't mean to be Debbie Downer and spread gloom, but here are the facts: Mycoplasmas are very difficult to clear. Treatment with the 'cyclines needs to be prolonged, as in weeks, not days. Stopping treatment when the eye looks better and not giving a full course often ends up with a relapse. Alternatively, you may be left with an inapparent carrier - a bird which looks healthy, but is still shedding infective organisms. I applaud your efforts and your skills, and I hope I'm wrong, but there is still the possibility things could go south.
Sorry to rain on your parade.

I hurried to reassure Katdoc that I was already waking up from my fairy tale. 

  • Have spent a couple hours researching online. Sounds like birds remain carriers even after apparent recovery and treatment. Ugh. My first instinct was to put Booger down, and I actually was starting to, but something stopped me. Had I known about the passive carrier thing, I'd have done it. Well, now I know. And I have something like 800 people all rooting for Booger. Great. I think I'll go for the imperfect solution, and put soluble tetracycline in his water for a couple of weeks and see what happens. I'm looking at a badly infected female house finch on the feeder right now. If I could catch her I'd wring her neck. All those healthy little goldfinches right by her. Now I have a better understanding of what's actually going on, which is a pretty profound and persistent epidemic.

In my online reading, I'd found out a lot about this bacterium that I hadn't known. 
Like the small fact that it's essentially incurable. 

Even Baytril, the super-expensive miracle antibiotic that's one of the last resorts for pernicious infections, doesn't eliminate Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG). I read a study where turkeys who'd had huge courses of Baytril still had MG in their tracheas, just waiting to resurge. Carriers for life. Awesome.

I contacted Dr. Starship, my go-to source on all things both astronomical and infectious, who corroborated my sinking feeling about what I'd embarked on here. He wrote:

My expertise with Mycoplasmatales and other Mollicutes is pretty much confined to trying to keep them out of cell cultures, which over time is damned near impossible, and then trying to figure out how to cure the cell culture, which you can't.  Believe me, I spent a lot of time on Mycoplasma.

Which is kind of the point; nearly every critter out there comes colonized by one or more (usually more) mycoplasma species many of which are pathogenic for somebody somewhere and cannot be eradicated.  Despite the fact they have no cell walls like other bacteria, they are remarkably tough and can evolve into new drug resistance right before your eyes.

Now, the saving grace for you and Booger is that M. gallisepticum  is usually shed by stressed and immunosuppressed, therefore diseased, birds.  What I was thinking as you described treating Booger was that, while your antibiotics wouldn't do that much for the Mycoplasma infection, they probably would help a lot with the secondary pathogens which infect a lot of diseased birds and actually cause many of the clinical signs.  That, a good feeding, and some warmth would tend to turn Booger around fast if he wasn't too far gone.  So, if Booger can get his immune system tuned up at your feeders he will likely stop shedding the bug, at least for the time being.   

Part of the story here is that you could have flamethrowers mounted at your feeders to barbecue the Darwinian losers from their perches, but you still wouldn't eradicate the bug from the population.  So, the best you can do is to try to keep them as healthy as you can through the most stressful months.  The bug will still be there, though.
See why I love blogging? It has brought me wise friends like Dr. Starship, who guided me through the bat rabies debacle. The most I could hope for was to get Booger to the point where he was asymptomatic, but he'd in all likelihood still be a carrier going forward.

The problem with that being that feeding stations are the perfect place for MG to spread. It's a persistent bug. It can live on exposed metal feeder surfaces for 12-24 hours.  MG. OMG. 

Murr Brewster contributed a photo of a house finch at her Portland, OR feeder from last summer. Like I said, this is a terrible disease. And what's even worse is that poor disfigured little bird is shedding Mycoplasma on every surface it touches. That bad eye goops on a feeder port, and the next bird's going to pick up a dose. And on it goes, a human-aided spread of a bad, bad bug.

Another interesting point from Katdoc:

It is a horrid disease. I'm sorry for what you are going through right now. I think (hope, wish) that there is some resistance in the Am. goldfinch population and that we see the Darwinian effects of weeding out the weaker members. I believe that house finches are too closely related, genetically, after generations of inbreeding the original "Hollywood Finches" to ever beat this disease.

That was an interesting take. We've had this explosive radiation of house finches in the East, all descended from a couple of crates of "Hollywood linnets" released by a pet dealer on Long Island in 1939. He probably didn't want to get fined for selling native birds, so he let them go. So this huge population blanketing the eastern half of the country is all coming from a very small founder stock, and all related at this point. Inbreeding depression weakens birds genetically. As Katdoc points out, they may never develop resistance to this illness, especially when infected birds, unable to see to forage in the wild, gravitate to feeders and spread it there.  What was I doing here? 

Well, I was trying to figure out what the least worst thing might be that I could do. I couldn't tell 1080 people who already "like" Booger that he was going to be fine. I couldn't very well tell them, at least on my shiny happy Facebook page, that I should have wrung his neck right at the start. People were telling me I was "amazing" and calling me "finch whisperer" and "miracle worker" and any number of other very nice names when I am none of those things. I'm blundering around here, doing too little and making way too much noise about it. So I'm telling those with enough interest to click through (that would be you!) exactly that. The "Oh how sweet!" crowd can go on their way in happy ignorance.

 I decided to medicate Boog until he was asymptomatic, release him and hope he wouldn't have a relapse. And to shut my mouth next time until I knew more about what I was trying to do.

This whole time I've been working with Booger, there's been a female house finch at the feeders, almost completely blind with MG. She takes auditory cues from the other birds, and when they all fly off giving alarm calls, she flies straight up in a weird, jerky, tentative way, then  descends and crash-lands high in the soft foliage of an arbor vitae, fluttering to a usually upside-down, clinging halt. It's a pretty amazing coping strategy--a blind bird still flying, and figuring out where to crash-land where she can get out of the way of danger, but won't hurt herself. High enough to be out of reach. Today I tried sneaking up on her when all the other birds had flown, and she did the same routine. She can see juuust enough to see me coming. Next time I'm going to try the koi net.

She's our Typhoid Mary, and you can bet that if I do manage to catch her, I'm not going to give her a cute name and post about her. I won't even try to treat her. Been there, done that, and I'm here now, mea culping all over the place.

When I'm done I'll bleach the feeders. No point doing that until she's out of the picture.

The scuzzy-looking goldfinch has out"liked" anything I have ever posted. Go figure. I'd say it went viral, but it's actually bacterial. Heh.

Lame jokes aside, Mycoplasma gallisepticum is a horrible disease. Western house finches, imported by us to the East, have brought it through no fault of their own.
They have spread it, at minimum, to pine siskins, common redpolls, purple and Cassin's finches, as well as American goldfinches. 

Asymptomatic birds can apparently recover, but remain carriers for life. 

Now you tell me.

This has been a public service announcement from Dr. Doolittle, who tries always
to tell the truth, pretty and cute or not.

UPDATE: Booger's doing GREAT. Day 11 of treatment. Zooming around the cage, eating like a pig, both eyes bright and clear, molting in a little black beret. I couldn't catch him even if I wanted to. Can't even photograph him--he's that wild. I just want to let him go. And I will, soon. 


This is why I don't do Facebook. I tried it for two weeks or so some years back and hated it. There are no conversations, just "oooh, I like that" or dumb emoticons like this: :D. It's the internet equivalent of what small talk is to a deep conversation. And the "like" buttons really steam me. I mean, if you really like something, take the time to leave a comment; the poster went to all the trouble to write the post -- it's the least a responder can do.

That being said, I remember that we used to have a lot of house finches around here years ago. In fact, they outnumbered the house sparrows. Not so anymore. One or two may pass through here, but it's predominantly the house sparrows now. Perhaps the finches died off? The house sparrows were just more aggressive? Who knows? I'm glad that they are gone, after reading your story. I don't know if I could bring myself to wring a bird's neck. Sometimes I come across a bird that is obviously dying, and even though if I were in its shoes, I would want to be put out of my misery, I just can't do it. I put it to the side where I can watch it from the window. Then I proceed to agonize over the fact that I'm a coward and pray for the bird to die already.

Posted by Anonymous April 4, 2015 at 4:22 AM

I read your blog,and also flirt with Chet. Often. I did not know about this finch disease, but now will search out whether it is a problem in our area. My husband made some simple birdhouses when we moved up here, so he could enjoy some of the wildlife into his retirement, and even made bat houses, after I suggested it from your blog We also admire your artwork, and read you for the sheer pleasure of it.... THIS is a longerwinded LIKE, JulieZ.....and our love to Chet too.

Sad to see you handling this infected bird with bare hands.

I have a personal FB rule that if I *like* something that's a link, it means I've actually clicked thru to the blog post or article or whatever it is - and really am saying that I like what I read there.

At The Wildlife Center we do manage to use two people to get meds down a songbird's gullet. One holds the bird in that way that has the head sticking out between your index and second finger, and hour hand holding the body/wings. The other pries open the beak and sticks the syringe down the esophagus. As a volunteer there, holding things is what I do. Also cleaning cages. And other menial stuff.

Over the years I've seen a few finches with this eye stuff going on. But this year I had a rash of birds, often Juncos, with bloated ticks on their necks. Yikes! They were far to zippy to catch, but surely that would weaken them?

Anyhoo - keep fighting the good fight. It's all any of us can do, and you do it with more grace and energy than most.

I am such a sucker for animals, and will name them at the drop of a hat. It is difficult for me not to get attached to individuals, and to not remember that Nature is Nature and to let it take its course. Looking at all my finches at my feeders, it is sobering to know things like MG exist, but it will remind me to keep my feeders well-cleaned, if nothing else.
That being said, with my busy day, seeing your FB posts is how I keep up with you, and a "mail flag" for me to come over here to read your latest. Thanks for not giving up on this blog or on FB, and keep all this coolness coming, please!

Whatever the outcome, Booger reminds us that selection, while good for a species, is crappy for the individual and it's a very difficult call. Kudos to you both for beating the odds, even if just temporarily. That infected housefince is doing everything she can to beat the odds, even though it's not good for the species. I remember when the disease started showing up in my area. We had ginormous flocks of house finches. Now if I see 6 at the feeder, it's a lot. However, I haven't seen any infected birds in quite a while and there's the benefit. It's so hard to know what to do. My husband has had to kill injured/sick deer, raccoons, even a cat and it always breaks our hearts even though it's the most humane action. We just keep on keeping on as best we can.

Posted by catspaw April 4, 2015 at 5:16 AM

Don't feel bad. You made a decision based on the information you had at the time--and your heart. Given that you have helped other critters in the past, I think it was reasonable to at least give it a try. If it hadn't of had the social media effect the whole thing wouldn't have seemed so monumental. You've made little Booger feel better now. And that's good. You've learned and can thus educate others and yourself and try to take some small steps to keeping the bacteria reduced even slightly at the feeder. I see nothing but a kind heart and relieved bird.

Cathy V

Posted by Anonymous April 4, 2015 at 5:21 AM

Individuals fighting the odds is good for the species - that is how natural immunity develops. Helping individuals fight the odds is good for our species - that is how society develops.

Posted by Anonymous April 4, 2015 at 5:25 AM

This post is why your blog will never die ...unless you choose to wring its literary neck.
Read every sensible and honest word.
NOW to go "Like" it on FB.

When I had an outbreak of Salmonella in a huge erruption of Pine Siskins one year, I had to take all my feeders down, bleach them, and leave them down for weeks until they dispersed. It's so sad to see. I could never attempt to catch infected birds and eradicate them, so I applaud you, Julie. I also applaud your humility and honesty in putting a post like this out there, when it would be easy to simply let people assume Booger will be fine and go on to live a happy life. Nothing about having a big heart is easy. Love you. XO

I had the same experience with Pine Siskins last year. Most were sick and a Coopers Hawk made multiple visits picking them off each day. I was worried about the hawk. Do you know if they get infected as well? I took the feeders down for the rest of the season. This year the Siskins are back and all look very healthy. I appreciate all the good information you have shared here!
Thank you,
Jody Z

Here in South Carolina, our bird experts recommend removing the tube feeders when the finches are migrating through, and scattering seed on the ground or in flat feeders. It's those tube ports that help to spread the disease so quickly. One year I had so many infected birds dying in my yard - the university expert I spoke with just said "Take 'em down!" and disinfect them, and wait til the birds have moved on before using them again. It's probably a drop in the bucket, but at least I don't feel responsible for spreading the disease.

AS a blogger since 2007, I totally agree with your summation of FB. Many have taken their blog identities to FB and the results are a much shallower conversation, if one at all. I guess it appeals to the instant gratification bug in all of us. While I use FB it is usually to do a quick connect with friends and family, not to share my creative efforts in depth like I do on my blog.

Your post, which is wonderful, BTW, is so spot on to what my hubbie and I are going through with one of our chickens. The other chix look great but this one has been suffering and hubbies heart is breaking. One part of him says the right think is to put her down but he keeps trying everything to get her better. And the tetracycline? We always have that in the barn for situations like this. While it seems to have helped her a bit, we believe she may have broken her hip or had an egg break inside, both of which are not that unusual. Last night he decide he will keep nursing her until her quality of life is negligible and then will put her down. It's really interesting how the other chickens know she is not well. They are all healthy as can be and are giving her space to eat and drink and no pecking allowed! So we are on "bird death watch" too and it sucks.

Thanks again for your wonderful post, always illuminating and caring.

Thanks, Julie. I missed your first posting about this and have found this retelling of the whole deal quite fascinating. Good luck catching Typhoid Mary.

I appreciate this post on so many levels, but especially because you don't sugar-coat things and because you take a very scientific-approach with the treatment of this bird and then share the results with your "fan base". What a great way of educating people about both the good and the bad in nature.

As to the issue of FB vs. blogging. I do both, but have too little time to blog as much as I would like. I also know that the attention span of readers can be short. I think both forms of social media have pros and cons. I noted yesterday that the different outlets for the same material get different readership and reactions as was the case for my recent post on the tragedy in Kenya.

I used to be Pollyanish, but now write on some very somber issues that I believe need to be discussed.

Oh lordy. Tears shed here, Julie, for you and for me, for the house finches, pine siskins, American goldfinches and for Booger in particular. For the state of life on earth in general.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say, but I believe the road to hell is paved with apathy. You can choose to avert your eyes or you can take action and do the best you can. Accepting that sometimes the best you can falls far short of good enough.

As for Facebook, I use it to keep in touch with people I know mostly. I also 'friend' people who I admire, this is where you fell in initially, after I came across your book "The Bluebird Effect" in the library while working my way through their birding section. Having met you, enjoyed very much your combination of magical and sensible, I now count you among my acquaintances with whom I share an avid interest in and affinity for the natural world. Through the responses to your FB posts and blog, I am gratified to know how many more kindred spirits there are out there in the world.

As always, thank you for sharing and educating and caring.


Posted by Gail Spratley April 4, 2015 at 7:36 AM

Awesome story, and something I've never tried...even if I DID have some inkling of what to try to cure the bird. I'm sorry to say, when the birds get so bad, I catch and 'remove the bird' from living/suffering anymore. Then I just quit feeding, and bleach all the feeders. A few weeks later, I set them up again. I'm careful not to do this during a winter storm, other than that, I'm no where NEAR as compassionate as you are. I'm glad that you are...and as usual, I learned a lot. Ha...including the part that I was probably doing the right thing all along! [sigh]

I do Facebook as a means of keeping up with peeps, but the insipidity wears on me. I follow only two blogs, yours and Murr's. (OK, sometimes The Blogess) entertainment? Yep. Education? Yep. Like minds? Yep. And you do it so well. I can almost feel your mind working over the fate of poor Booger. Keep doing what you do. And keep writing.

I agree with you about Facebook. I still love posting on the blog. I use Facebook tell friends that I have a new post up on the blog.

This is such a great story, Julie. It's always such a challenge when the heart triumphs over the head like this. I remember when we saw our first case of House Finch disease when we were up in Port Townsend, WA and had our first bird feeders up. I remember burying a Pine Siskin. I'm glad Booger is getting stronger. He is one lucky Goldfinch to cross paths with your very compassionate heart.

It was me who called you 'Finch Whisperer' and I do click through because of FB.
And you are a teacher. This is why I read your blog, and take interest in your posts; all your posts.
Keep writing, and post on that feeder tube FB.

Julie, that is why your fans love you, because of your big heart. Whether what you do for our animals is right or wrong, you do what you feel. You are an amazing writer and speaker. I love to read your blogs, and have been blessed to meet you and see you speak several times. I live in Indianapolis, and have seen many a House Finch with this disease, and at one time participated in the House Finch Disease Survey. It is very sad, but I will say I haven't seen quite as many diseased birds at my feeders the past few years. Last year I was proud of myself for catching a young Chipping Sparrow that had some green plastic netting around it's head and stuck in it's bill. I was able to cut it away and release the poor thing. It is a good feeling when you can help, and you just hope that every little effort we all put it will make a difference somehow. I look forward to more stories!

Superb. I'll remember this when, inevitably it seems, a blind house finch shows up at the feeder.

Aww, Lauren. I loved the name "Finch Whisperer." And I wish I were. The fact is that a really compromised, sick bird will do really weird stuff, like climb on a person's finger. The second he feels better he looks at me and goes AHHHHH!! and bashes himself against the cage bars trying to get away! Can't tell you how many people have brought injured hawks/owls to me saying they believe the bird knows they're trying to take care of it, and they have a special bond. Well, they do. For those few hours when the bird's in shock or hurting. I get to deal with them when they'd just as soon bite me as look at me. And that's the way I like 'em. :) Thanks for clicking through and hanging with me.

Julie, BRAVO on your blog and links from Facebook! And on your books - just finished reading "The Bluebird Effect." Your writing has a nice balance of humor, humility, thoughtfulness, and detailed education on topics that are generally not covered on other books or blogs. Your Facebook links to the blog make sense given that folks consume so much media on Facebook now via smartphones and PC's. I also really enjoy your daily updates on Facebook with notes of beauty or a sweet thought or an observation for us birders. And the related photos or paintings - we appreciate your hard work on those updates.
Now I'm off to bleach our feeders! Your article reminded me that they're due for a cleaning. We have been feeding 30-40 goldfinches each day since the end of January here in Massachusetts. And 4-6 bluebirds.
Today the Phoebes arrived in our yard, tails bobbing and replenishing themselves after likely long flights. They nest under our porch every year. And this also means a battle with mites that attack them and then overflow up into our porch for a few weeks, to our horror. Ugh. Oh well, it's all part of the experience as Clark Griswold would say...

Posted by Chris M. April 4, 2015 at 10:33 AM

I'm an inveterate FB poster and lurker. But I have several blogs I regularly attend to, yours being the first on my list. Keep doing what you're doing. It gives the rest of us who care about more than "cute" some hope that there are actually some curious folks out there besides ourselves. Thanks for the lesson on mycoplasma infections in the aviary world.

Keep on with your Blog please. I learn so much from you. I would miss you, Chet and the children terribly if you sign off. I want to know more than aren't they cute etc. You do this so well. I feel like one of your family. I am one of your Blog Family. Happy Easter to you and yours.

What an interesting and informative story! And what a thorny dilemma. I like the way you handled it, but that's just me.
A different Mycoplasma occurs in cattle and it is also a nightmare to eradicate once it turns up in a herd. We were fortunate to never have any cattle contact it in over 70 years of the family farming here, but with cows going to shows, we were really, really lucky. I am grateful because it is, like the avian kind, simply horrible.

I'm sorry about this disease hitting so close to home for so many of us. Happy there is at least an okay outcome for Booger. As for FB, I'm glad you choose to post there as well. When I am super busy, I can check Facebook and be reminded to click through to your site and feed my brain something worthwhile.

Love your blogs. Appreciate the teasers. And confess that I jumped to the end of this story to brace myself. Whew.

You have a special gift Julie! and we are along for the ride and we all love your beautiful poems and watercolors and stories...and Chet! and photos!. Many of us live vicariously through your stories.
Your fans know that your passion is a blessing, but can also be a curse from time to time.
Just know we all appreciate your beautiful gifts.
And that little finch? he may not survive, and you may not be able to eradicate the Booger in all of them, but you did what you did from the heart. THAT is what we love.
And we love to hear the up's...AND downs.
I still remember crying when I read about Charlie dying. I sat at my computer and wept like she was my own!
So, even though I know you share all this with us, I know it must be weird sometimes.
Have a very happy Easter!
Love from your biggest Stonington CT fan!

Not sure I knew you had a FB, and can't remember how I found your blog, but yours is one of 10 sites I check every morning to start the day. I have The Bluebird Effect, and would love to show more support, but please know that I'm reading every post, living vicariously, and soaking up all I can about animal rescue and wildlife education. You lead an admirable and enviable life, and I hope you know that :-D.

I stopped using the tube feeders because finch eye disease just broke my heart. I don't seem to see it as much with ground feeding and suet feeders. Have had a couple of possible salmonella cases -- birds stumbling around, not flying off when I approached, not able to swallow food -- but not as many as the eye disease. Sure do love these birdies :-D.

Ah Lauren how sweet. As good as it feels NOT to own a macaw any more (I was just reflecting on that this afternoon, the utter lack of guilt I have about leaving the house now!) I still can't read "Charlie's Secret" without weeping too. She was a good bird, well loved. They all are. I love Booger, even though he loathes me. And he's doing so well. Maybe he will go on to regain his health and not shed Mycoplasma ever again. And look! a flying pig! But he's got a lot better chance of that now than he did.

Chris M.--on the mite infestation. Google "Mitey House" on You Tube. It's a horribly embarrassing video featuring yours truly in the most compromising garb, treating a phoebe nest that's just fledged. It's pretty funny. Especially the plastic bag touque I'm wearing.

Thank you ... Zickefoose University is the best! I do appreciate all that I have learned in each and every blog.

Oh, Julie. Dear Julie. I'm glad he's doing great. Good luck to him, and may you bleach your feeders soon--no matter what that means to the blind little lady finch out there.

I'll leave it at that.

While I came to your blog because of Chet (and I love following along with him), I look forward to your blog so much. I've learned so much and enjoyed your writing style.

I am slowly and deliberately making my way through The Blubird Effect while on vacation in Akumal, Mexico. I want to read it all at once, but I also what to savor it and think about the wonder of each chapter. I was telling my teen daughter about a chapter on the flight here and she's been asking me what bird you're writing about in the chapter I'm reading. That's magic--getting a 16 year old to wonder about birds!! I think my slow and steady approach to introducing her to the natural world is working!

This blog piece should be a chapter in your next book!

Julie, I always feel so helpless when I see a finch with MG. I am amazed at all you learned and all you've done. Thank you for sharing the whole truth with us. I learned a lot from this post.

Julie, I always feel so helpless when I see a finch with MG. I am amazed at all you learned and all you've done. Thank you for sharing the whole truth with us. I learned a lot from this post.

Thanks, Julie. You've answered my main questions about the gummy eye disease. I haven't seen it yet this year, but a couple of years ago a "tame" American goldfinch sat all day in the oak tree. He was gorgeous as long as his left side was toward me. Other way, not a pretty sight. I never saw him visit the feeders. Maybe he was too far gone to get there.

I couldn't possibly have caught him, and I'm not licensed to do so anyway. I could see no way to help other than to take the feeders down, chlorinate them, and leave them down for a while. Now, having read your post, I think it was the right thing to do.

I appreciate your taking the time to lay out the situation, teaching with the story. Well done, and helpful.

Dear Julie, I love blogging; I love blogs; I love YOUR blog! Thank-you for the public service announcement. I saw an Oregon-race junco that looked to have this. Can they get it, too?

Dear Michelle,

I did some digging on The Google and came up with this: Initially reported only in house finch populations, the disease has recently been reported in other members of the finch (fringillidae) family, such as goldfinches, purple finches, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, dark-eyed juncos and house sparrows, and some non-finch species such as blue jays, and black-capped chickadees. The report (on a blog called ) went on to say that other species do not seem to suffer such dramatic infections as do house finches. In my digging around, I am beginning to think that the house finch Murr Brewster photographed (in my post) may have a facial tumor rather than classic mycoplasmal conjunctivitis.
Thank you for your kind words, Michelle!

As with Bunny above, this is something I wrestle with fairly regularly with my chickens. They are all named, and they exist in a pet/project/livestock continuum. I've eaten some, I've euthanized some, I've taken some to my local, country vet who, although a small animal practitioner, has been willing to try with the birds I've brought in. I've won some and I've lost some. The poultry party line tends to be "cull if ill," but I have not been able to honor the needs of the many over the needs of the one. Sigh...

As for wild birds, I took the feeders down when I got the chickens to minimize the possum, skunk, and coon presence. The wild birds (starlings and house sparrows, but also cardinals, white-crowned sparrows, and juncos) freely find their way into the chicken runs, and although bird flu is again in the news, I'm unwilling to raze my habitat or inprison my chickens to keep them apart.

I found out about this disease a while back after seeing several sick birds at our feeders. I couldn't kill him either.

Posted by Anonymous April 6, 2015 at 12:42 PM

You actually had no choice at all, not once he'd hopped on your finger, but to do everything you did and learn everything you learned and then help the rest of us understand. What I think I understand is the next time I see a bulbous-faced denizen at my feeder, I should take the feeder down, bleach it right down to its short hairs, and not put it up again for--hmm. Weeks? Months? As bad a my little fellow looked, he seemed to get around fine for several weeks (sorry), and then I didn't see him anymore. (More evidence of a facial tumor?) Possibly I cleaned the feeder promptly by accident (my schedule is every third filling or so) but I don't remember. I haven't seen any other such birds since. DON'T WANT TO.

I am a total animal lover but also believe in not interfering with nature. But most people see what you did as utterly charming, not understanding what you found out.

I thought the advice was to take down the feeders until the sick birds disappeared and also be sure to disinfect them.

With the huge spread of antibiotics and antibacterial products through our ecosystems, I suspect other resistant diseases will also be showing up in wild animals and will continue to increase in humans.

Well, Julie, I"m finally getting around to thanking you officially for this very special blog. But first, I have to tell you that I've spent an hour or so reading other pieces you've written here, including a few about Charlie the Macaw.

You had instructed Barbara Jean on FB, who was interested in your experience with parrots, how to call up past blogs. So, I went looking at first for some explanation of how Chet Baker came into your lives and how he got that wonderful name that cracks me up. So many blogs with Chet! I could read all day. Then I decided to look for Charlie blogs, and was delighted with lots of pics of Charlie with you, your darling kids, Chet Baker, fake tarantula, etc. I read about your grief over Charlie's death in the blog about that awful turtle abuse "holiday," and I understood how you were feeling, 'cause we've lost 6 kitty cats and 2 bunnies that were soul mate, best friend (our first 2 cats) and the rest all special, unique beings that gave lots of grins and joy, and, finally, heartache, by their sudden absence in our lives. Then, just before coming to this spot on the blogspace to comment on Booger, I read Charlie's Secret and I'm still wiping tears away. Losing a beloved companion, well, there's nothing that ever fills the empty spot left behind. Even time doesn't erase it, and on any given day, if circumstances bring them to mind and heart, the tears come again. I so loved reading it, though, that beautiful narrative and tribute, with it's history of pictures and new arrivals to the family.

And now, Booger, and that ravaging house finch disease that is a heartbreaker, too. Thank you for the research and wealth of info on it. I asked Lee (excellent hubby) if he had heard of or seen signs of it in our area. He hadn't. And, so far we haven't noticed sick birds at our feeders. But, we've been a bit out of the birding loop for a couple of years - long story - and so I will talk to very dear and longtime friend, "Mr. Bob" (Stymeist), who will know everything there is to know, including the numbers, since counting is one of his great specializations (lol) and remembering data, one of his many many gifts. Meantime, I'm grateful to know everything you shared, including how to kill a bird that is sick or suffering. It sounds kind of strange to be grateful for learning to wring a neck, but, I am grateful for that knowledge.

Mostly, I want to thank you for your openness and honesty, and the very raw and heartfelt sentiment that ran throughout this blog. You're so right on about FB and other social media being a weird kind of mini-world, where sometimes one's ego can get wrapped around the smallest thing - and I'm speaking for myself here. So, I respect greatly that you wrestled with whether to share, what to share, what not to share about the dark side of your decision to nurse Booger, and that you chose, in the end, to give it all, the whole story, that is. Bravo.

(Too wordy, so I have to split it into two comments)

Julie, here is the rest of my loooong comment....didn't mean to write my own blog -lol.

I've thought a lot about why the Booger post got such a reaction. I think you're right, that it touches the tender spot in us that hates to see the suffering of wild things. I think you're right that people were elated that you were the one willing to lose sleep even, to tend to this sick little bird, regardless of the end result - because that's a lot of giving to do. The time it takes, the emotional toll, the effort of mixing medicine and prying open beaks. And, so on behalf of myself & other responders to the FB post, thank you for all of those things.

I've also thought about whether Booger meant so much, in part, because we are so desolate about the continuing, relentless loss of habitat for birds and all the other beautiful critters of the world. I think we are overwhelmed by it, and, so, one little bird becomes so much more important. You think to yourself, great! - one that beat the odds (with help) and survived. Maybe that explains a little. I don't know.

But, thank you thank you, for the wonderful stories and excellent photos of your daily wanderings and busyness here on Blogspot, which I am so very much enjoying. And, one last remark: can you tell me if there's a blog about how you came up with the name Chet Baker for that adorable and hilarious Boston Terrior?

Blessings to you and yours, present & passed.....


I've said it before. The social media world is a weird, weird world. I say that as someone who's up to her neck in it and part of the problem, ...

Really loved your blog came across it trying to find what to do with the MG infected birds. We have dozens of them (house finches) feeding here they are all infected and just saw an infected gold finch.Should we take the feeders down for a while? Will winter kill most of them off? We've had house finches here on feeders for years all year round and this is the first season for this infection. What's the best thing to do besides bleach the feeders and how often should that be done? Please don't tell me to kill anything cause that's not going to happen!Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Anonymous: Treat feeders with a quarter cup bleach to 2 Gallons of water, wash feeders well (can use soap too), let dry, then refill. I get the eye disease here near Romeo, MI. It is hard to stop. So far I see it on my House Finches only. Very sad to see. Thanks for this blog and your insights...I was thinking of catching and treating some, but I think it is best just to treat the feeders, or remove for a while. They all flock together so it is hard to stop this disease. I am a RN, so it is really, really hard not to do something, and I considered the antibiotic in the water, but it may just cause more resistance in the birds. ~ Chris

I just read your blog post and don't feel so bad now. Was a farm girl (in another life) and today when I saw a very young House Finch with 'the eye' gut told me to do what I used to do with sick chickens (just as you wrote). Clorox on my feeders and letting them dry every week just doesn't cut it. I am a photographer so am constantly shooting my Goldfinch population and all the birds in my "pretend" natural aviary in my back yard. So far....cross fingers...the Gold's have shown no 'eye problems'.
I live in Redmond WA and see by the Cornell website map that our area has seen MANY House Finch Eye Diseased birds here.
We have saved many birds and squirrels but never attempted what you did. It's now June 1, 2016 and wonder if your little guy ever 'made it'.
Thanks for the great blog post.

As a Federal and state-licensed Bird Rehab. I have dealt with this disease for many years and even my avian veterinarian posed the question to me about them being carriers and if they should even be rehabbed. So I did an experiment after the 1 Goldfinch that I treated for 10 days with Tylan powder mixed in his water I put him in a flight cage with another Goldfinch that I had raised from a nestling that had been saturated with blood sucking mites and survived.. after in the cage together for 3 months the nestling I raised showed no signs of the eye infection. They both remain healthy Lively so I released them both. What I do under my feeders in the backyard is to put window screen screening down under my feeders and overlap it and secure it with landscape pins so I can pick it up when we mow the lawn and dump any hulls or poop in the garbage hose down the screens spray with a Ten percent bleach Solution on the screens let it dry and replace them under the feeder

Posted by Anonymous August 2, 2016 at 8:55 PM

Is there any way to add the anti-biotic to a water bath so they are ALL getting it?? I've seen one, and now a second bird with this eye infection at the feeder.

Thanks. (from PA)

Thanks for this information. I went out to fill my feeders yesterday and a house finch just sat there like I was invisible. As I waited I noticed the red swollen eyes. Not sure I can do anything other than try to keep the feeders clean.

Years ago, I had a canary with some sort of infection. Luckily I was able to bring it to the vet and get some medicine for it.
SHARING ADVICE: Try putting water soluble medicine in its drinking water, then put a warming light over the bird, so (s)he gets thirsty and drinks a lot.

The next morning, my canary was up and flying, feeling much better.


Hey Julie,
Ned here, good blog post. I had a finch show up at our feeders today with mycoplasma and, although I thought we only got purple finches up here (3000 ft, Sierra Nevada foothills), I'm suddenly seeing other finches which are either house finches or hybrids. And the sick one is possibly not a pure purple finch.

Only one of his eyes is swollen shut so I can't catch him. My feeders are covered with black-headed grosbeaks which love the amount of suet we put out - but the first time I see one grosbeak with swollen eyes, I'll shut them down. Until then, I clean the ports of the feeders with disinfectant wipes a couple of times a day so the spreading is hopefully slowed.

My question - any further thoughts about what people can do? There are got good rehabbers in this area so if I can catch him, I can take him in. And how is my man, Chet Baker??

You take care,
Ned, Pablo

I just - for the first time - found a finch sick with MG in my backyard. My heart is broken and I want to save it. Cornell Lab and FeederWatch recommended not to but I was going to just do what I could. Then I found your post. Thank you. I would have foolishly thought the finch cured via antibiotics and propagated the disease at my feeders. I don't think I have the courage to snap the bird's neck but I have a feeling the neighbor's cat will do the hard work for me. I will settle for cleaning my feeders and pretending not to see that little confused finch sitting in the grass unable to help itself. 😢

I found a female house finch as a chick and had to take her because a cat was ready to pounce and wouldn't go a way. As I raised her she developed a blister on her eye. I did the research and found that she needed oral treatment of Doxycycline for 45 days. I purchased it at and did just that. For a week I thought for sure she was going to die but slowly and I mean slowly got better. After 45 days she didn't appear sick and I kept her because she was now a carrier. Not sure if long exposure to the antibiotic caused it or not but 3 months later she died suddenly during the night but I saw that she hemorrhaged blood from her nose and anus. It really broke my heart as she bonded with me during her treatment time although I did not handle her, I administered the medicine in her water. I'd do it again for any other bird. To me it's like a person with HIV, some cannot help that they caught it but doesn't deserve to die because they are a carrier, hopefully there are caring people that care for them when they are in need.

I just googled up this column, which I remembered from a few years ago, after receiving a message this morning from a very kind woman who wants to know how to help the affected female Purple Finch at her feeders. Thank you for the detailed report. It is good information and an instructive dose of reality. My kind-hearted friend can handle the truth, even though it will sadden her. I sent her the link. Thank you on behalf of the both of us. — Diane Porter

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