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My Bird Feeder Clients

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

 As I write, the wind is roaring again, and the newly flowering maples are tossing their heads and arms like they're at a rave. Practically every minute, something changes out there. A fox sparrow arrives and beats up a house sparrow.  My beautiful red-winged blackbird comes in for peanuts, as he has for several springs running. 

It's not every redwing that will climb on a peanut feeder. He's special!

Yeah baby! Get you some peanuts! And then he flies off to his territory at the nearest pond, about a half mile away as the redwing flies. Fergus the Frog's pond, if you must know.

On March 30, my darling male chipping sparrow returned from wherever he spent the winter. He immediately checked out every single feeder (all new to him). 

and fearlessly worked his way under the protective dome over this hanging platform. 

I just love birds' intelligence and adaptibility. He checked for Zick Dough where it used to be before it was mobbed with house finches, and finding none, decided to take advantage of what was there. I can't wait to see if his funny little mate with the spiky eyebrows comes back again this spring. 

You see, I have deeply personal feelings about the birds who come to my feeders. I follow them from year to year. They're my friends, and that's nothing to minimize in a pandemic.  So when I see them under threat as a result of something I am doing, it bothers me deeply. 

This old photo from March 8, of my beloved male hairy woodpecker mobbed by goldfinches at a tube feeder, is hard for me to look at now that I've made the connection between tube feeders and disease transmission. You can see the messed up eye on the lowest left goldfinch.

And his mate, with a sick goldfinch on the opposite port! You can see that scabby eye..the woodpecker perhaps saved from infection by her longer bill, which allows her to dip into the seed without contacting the port. However they have escaped it, I am so grateful. But this is what fuels my ferocious focus on taking the vectors out of the equation.

What fuels it is my love for all of them. 

This is a much safer way to feed. No ports to contact. Just bird and peanut and gone.

And what of the ones who brought this contagion? Why have I treated and (hope to) release now 18 American goldfinches, and no house finches? Well, this is something I've been thinking about a LOT. 
I see house finches with symptoms. And here's the thing: I can't even come close to catching them.

I'm trying to figure out what's going on. From what I have observed, house finches seem to be managing better with the disease than goldfinches. 
This is the first mass infection of goldfinches I've witnessed. I've never seen more than one or two American goldfinches with conjunctivitis, before this late winter/early spring of 2021. 

And suddenly they are overwhelmed. First one eye closes, and then the second. And when the second closes (which can take a couple of weeks), the bird is helpless, and it's then that I can capture it. IF it is a goldfinch.

But house finches seem to go on with the disease, seem to be able to continue to see well enough to get by. I suspect this is at least partly behavioral (as in, they have learned how to rub their eyes on perches to open them when they get stuck shut). But it may also be that house finches are building up some kind of partial resistance to the disease that the naive immune systems of American goldfinches as yet lack. They may be able to live with it, as goldfinches can't. I ache for their suffering. Their eyes look so sore, and the feathers around them are always matted and messy, as if they've been rubbing them, trying to get their eyes open. 

I'm not a scientist. My observations are all anecdotal. But I can't help but keep chewing on this problem. 

One thing that's not going to happen: these goldfinches I've worked so hard to get back to radiant health are not going to find tube feeders to share with house finches when they finally ply the sky again. They're going to have to go out and find the foods they're supposed to be eating. Or take the occasional treat from my hanging platform feeders. Watching like a hawk. So far, so good. Three birds twittering in the foyer cage, the last remaining. Two will be released tomorrow, April 14. That will leave one, #19. 

Captured April 7, Hey 19 was sitting on the platform feeder with two healthy goldfinches, his eyes completely shut. He was able to open them just enough to get there, but, once fed, he just ran out of steam. I crept up and nabbed him by hand. He'd spend almost two days in intensive care, with tiny dishes of food and medicated water, and droppers of medicated water given by hand, before he could see again.

He was completely blind until April 9, when both eyes opened blearily and he could make out his surroundings. These photos were taken that day, when he had graduated from his plastic Critter Keeper to the big cage. I always love to see their eyes open, see them see again. It keeps me going.

In this photo you can see I've lightly cut the tips of his right tail feathers, just enough to tell me who he is, in case I catch more that would be caged with him. Sincerely hoping he's the last of the last of the last. He'll be with me until April 28, and then maybe, just maybe, this epidemic will have run its course. 

So far, I've taken in 19 goldfinches. I lost one after a week to what I suspect was a secondary fungal infection that Tylan doesn't touch. Hey. 18 out of 19 ain't bad. I'll take it! I love these little chitterbugs.


Do you have any problems with bears and your feeders in the spring? I have to take my feeders in. Once again a bear has destroyed the feeder in the middle of the day. I miss my bird family but I do not want to encourage bears even though I know they are very hungry now.

Hi Betsy, Much as I love wildlife, bears are one thing I don't want around, and as yet don't have. I really feel for you. It's not enough to take the feeders in at night. I think the only way around bears is hanging the feeders from a very high thin transverse wire from an eave to a tree, but that makes it hard for you, too--you've got to use hooks to get them up and down.

I love reading your testimonials to your love birds and all creatures great and small, for that matter. I love all my yard birds as my close friends. I talk to them, worry over them, and rejoice in the fledging of their babies. I await their returns in spring and fall. I wish them well on their journeys likewise. Thank you for helping every single one of those little goldfinches.

Do you recommend not to use tube feeders at all in the future?

Long time reader, first time commenter. Unrelated to feeders, but on the topic of visiting birds, I live in South Point OH and this past Tuesday am pretty sure I saw a Merlin during my evening walk. I live a block from the Ohio River and I assume I got lucky seeing him on his migratory path. Slate gray/blue, definitely, thick dark bars on the tail. I am no birder, but am pretty confident in my ID...would you consider that a normal sight in these parts?

Always love your work, thanks a bunch for it.


@Rob, your timing is perfect for a migrating merlin. Congratulations! There has been one hanging around the Ohio River on a road I frequent but haven't been lucky enough to see him. And they are regulars at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, believe it or not, in winter. Thanks for coming forward! JZ

@Judy McCann, I do not. My six are sidelined until further notice. I can't imagine a scenario in which I'd use them, especially if I had house finches around carrying that disease.

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