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Florence Nightingale, Meet Elmer Fudd: Still Helping Goldfinches

Tuesday, March 30, 2021


Well, folks, I'm still at it, doctoring, feeding, and cleaning up after --would you believe it--a total of 17 American goldfinches, installed in five different cages around my house. Capacity is at an all-time high as of this writing on March 26, and I'm actually blogging about it now so I don't forget in the excitement of the coming week, when I get to release a bunch of them at long, long last! My "morning practice" of heading out to see the sun rise has, since February 20 when I caught my first sick goldfinch, been replaced by janitorial duties. That's OK. I just postpone the hike with Curtis until they've been fed, medicated and watered. 

Since I wrote "Caught in the Whirlpool," admissions have slowed but not entirely halted. In the last three days, I've caught two more, and I have my eye on a little female who can still see well enough to evade me.

The huge flock of goldfinches--60  or more--that deposited these waifs at my doorstep is long gone. The tube feeders that attracted them are, too, likely never to be used again. I really want out of this loop, but I'm much more sanguine about it now that I have some releases coming up and recruitment of patients has slowed to a trickle. This is a typical scenario for me in the past month or so...

I make a delicious lunch of cranberry pecan chicken salad over tower-grown lettuce and head down to the new patio with a happy sigh to consume it in the spring sunshine. Self-care, yep! I'm doing it today!

And while I am sitting there, before I even get to take the first bite, the unbelievable occurs again...
a blinded goldfinch flutters down to the patio. This is the second time this has happened. 
How is a bird rehabber to get anything to eat? 

I put my salad on the terrace wall and advance.

 Can I document the hand-capture of a wild American goldfinch two times in a row?  It really helps when they're finally and totally blind. But I have to say, I am mystified and enchanted by the fact that two blinded birds--both females-- have raised the white flag and come to me when I least expected it. 

I got the bulk of my patients by creeping up on the tube feeders and snatching them off their perches. It was pretty easy to block their dim view of me using the feeder posts. After I took the tube feeders down, having made the connection between the feeder ports and disease transmission,  I had to get craftier.

I took to using my koi net, which has a long, telescoping handle. This is a really groovy way to catch the birds, since you don't have to get right up on top of them to nab them. I owe this Elmer Fudd video tribute to Shila Wilson, who, unbeknownst to me, was standing in the studio and ready with her iPhone when I grabbed the opportunity to try to catch an extremely elusive bird. Shh. Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I'm hunting Gowdfinches!

Don't know about you, but I find this video unintentionawwy hiwawious. Something about the way there's nothing happening, and then this black net just cweeps in from stage left...and then you have me, so totawwy focused on the's just hiwawious. And perfect that I didn't catch the little blighter after all that trouble.

Another bird who gave me the swip again and again is this one. I kept cweeping up on him with my Fuddnet, and he kept swipping out from under it wike quicksiwver. When I finawwy got him I was ewated! 

I named this bird Mr. Netinyahoo, because he was so hard to catch.


I'm sure Mr. Netinyahoo is a career criminal. Just look at that shifty face. He's plotting even as I grip him in my Gentle Cobra grasp. I'd only had him for a day when I opened his Pet Taxi to re-up his food and water and he flipped right out the door. Straight up to the clerestory windows he went, well above the reach of hand or net. 

That meant only one thing. I would have to bring the dreaded 17' extension ladder into the living room. 

This ladder is very heavy and unwieldy, and getting it in the front door is an adventure in cussing and trying not to not break something (window; Hoosier cabinet, mirror, lamp...) Luckily, once a goldfinch picks a window to flutter against, they tend to stay there.  Unlike hummingbirds, which rapidly switch windows, making you set the ladder up several times before you finally are able to nab them. You can see the tiny dark blip of Mr. Netinyahoo's head in the middle clerestory. Obviously this isn't my first rodeo, catching birds in the clerestory windows. 

I tried a bunch of times to extend the ladder but it kept collapsing. No way was I going to extend that thing only to have it suddenly retract and send me to the floor. So I said a prayer that I'd be able to reach him with the ladder unextended, called Shila to tell her I was about to do something dumb, and climbed up. At least somebody a half hour away by car would know I'd fallen... I caught him handily and started my descent. I couldn't see the underslung last step as I came down and missed it. Tumbled into a straw ottoman which nicely broke my fall. I rolled a bit, holding my precious cargo high in my right hand. He was unharmed, and so was I! But his little eyes were both screwed shut, which I found very touching. He probably thought he was toast when I went down.

And there may be yet a third way to catch a goldfinch. I'm getting cwaftier and cwaftier! I recently installed a New and Improved Secret Studio Feeder, which avid readers and social media followers will remember from 2017, when Jemima visited it for chicken breast, basmati rice, pecans, sugar snap peas, raspberries and the like. I went looking for a nice narrow plexi drawer organizer that I could wire up under my crank-out studio window, installed some plastic cups, and now I have a steady stream of awesome birds right up close to enjoy. My idea was to be able to offer some special foods like Zick dough and sunflower hearts to my beloved regulars without attracting big flocks of house and gold finches who would carry disease.

And wouldn't you know, a little female goldfinch with one squinty eye figured out how to get in there and eat. Bless her little heart! Needless to say, I'll be ready when she's finally robbed of her sight. I'm so touched that she spotted the sunflower hearts and had the courage to come in for food. That's a stretch for a goldfinch. They are sweet birds, but they are not innovators, the way titmice, Carolina wrens, blue jays and even chipping sparrows, to name a few, can be.

I am delighted to report that on March 29, this bird's good eye finally closed and I heard her toenails on the plexi of my new feeding station. Oh my gosh, there she was. BUT the screen was in, and the window was closed. Well, it was worth a try. Stealthily, I removed the screen. Still she sat and ate. Even more stealthily, I cranked the window out. The bottom of the window brushed the top of her head as it oh-so-slowly opened. Still she sat! One pounce of the Gentle Cobra and she was mine--the last of the last of the last sick goldfinches, I pray! I was beyond delighted to finally have her in my mitt.

So the saga continues. I sincerely hope to be able to stop running a goldfinch hospital in the nearish future. As is, with the birds I've got, I'll be caring for birds into the third week of April. Good thing I've done my taxes.

And speaking of taxing, I humbly thank you all for reading, and staying with me on this bizarre journey. Special thanks to those of you who have chosen to support my madness with blog donations. You don't have to! I got this! but you are very kind and I am grateful. I keep doing it because I feel terrible that goldfinches seem to be succumbing to the disease, usually mostly the province of house finches, in such alarming numbers this spring. I don't know why that is, or what has changed--has the bacterium mutated? But it's clear that their resistance to this awful disease is poor. 

I keep doing it because I love goldfinches, and if I have had any part in making them ill, I want to make them whole again.

I keep doing it because there's nothing quite like helping a blind bird see again. The only thing that's better than that is seeing a caged bird fly again. To my dear friend Donna I owe this poem excerpt, which she sent me on hearing my caged goldfinch singing. 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing; And I was filled with such delight As prisoned birds must find in freedom Winging wildly across the white Orchards and dark green fields; on; on; and out of sight. Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted, And beauty came like the setting sun. My heart was shaken with tears and horror Drifted away ... O but every one Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Sigfried Sassoon

The best little singer of the bunch really tuned up in the four days before his release. Since his cage was in the foyer, I got to enjoy it all day long from the adjacent studio.

And now, watch that beautiful singer and his female friend go free!

On Grief

Wednesday, March 24, 2021



I can’t remember ever being able to smell daffodils all over the yard, but they are stinking up the place this year, blowing yellow trumpets along every wall and border. The best they’ve ever been, I’m sure. They didn’t get frozen hard after they went to bud, for once; didn’t have to lie down in translucent submission to winter’s slap.

 It’s two years tomorrow since you died, March 25, 2019, and I feel as if it’s me with six feet of 

sandy loam between me and the grass and sky. Why is that? Why at the two year mark? Has anyone studied this? Today, I am impervious to joy. I see it all around me but I can’t feel it, I can’t make it up through grief’s deep clay. Look, everything tried to lift me up, but it barely worked. I cried at lunch, I cried at dinner, even though I took nice food out onto the patio I had built for myself. I fed a lot of it to Curtis. At lunch I looked straight up, bawling, at a creamy white cloud and there were three hawks circling silently—a pair of redshoulders being escorted off to the west by a very large, very white- bellied, broad-breasted redtail.

 At this point I know her just by her tanklike shape, but I look, I must make sure; I wait for her to turn and yes! There is the light hitting off the rumpled white feathers on her torn and mended right patagium, the one she ripped on barbed wire before I found her hanging there on October 25, 2019. How is it that I get to see her again? And how is it that seeing her just makes me cry more? Nature tries, I cry.


And Nature tried again—a raven circled high, high above, a wedge-tailed, still-winged marvel, letting out a rolling croak, just to the north of the tower atop our house, the one you dreamt, the one we had built, the one that was worth building just to know we could do that. Nobody but you thinks to build a tower on their house. And while I was watching the raven, the lisping tlit! of a tree swallow, first of the year, and my unbelieving eyes watched it cross the path of the raven. How is it that I got to see those two birds together? And this morning, the ringing wild song of the first Louisiana waterthrush came up out of Goss’ Fork, and only now do I remember when writing about it that right after we met you wrote me a song about how “the waterthrush so sweetly sighs,” rhyming that with “the warmth in her butternut eyes.”  It was the first song you wrote for me, and it was a fairly good one. Not many people get good songs written to them. I put that in my basket of pluses. Those two fine kids, too, the best music we made. 



All this happened today. At sunset I sat out on your little patio and a woodcock flittered back behind the great brushpile I’ve built—I know the sound of their wings. And then a big red bat came circling over and over around the back yard, the evening sun lighting its chestnut wings and setting its cinnabar hair afire. My favorite bat. Well, OK, there’s my favorite bat now, circling. It’s all piling up. The meadow woodcock started up calling and dancing, adding its twitter, hiccup and beep to the evening drag racers out on the county road, to the moron’s roar of engines and barking dogs in three directions. Clinging to the magic I could hear above the din, I decided to walk out the orchard in the moonlight to see if there were more woodcocks out there. No, but there were spring peepers in the wet field below, and I needed those. On my way back by your parents’ graves, a brown thrasher, the first of the year, scolded me with a dry skidding tuff! call, one I know by heart, knowing a little something about brown thrashers. Again, a first of the year, and my first ever heard in the dark. I thought then that this means it’s time to plant the peas, but the thought  brought no leap of excitement; it just made me tired. More tussling with my faint-hearted gas rototiller, with no one to even hear me cuss.


I sat on the stone bench and listened to the woodcock, then headed out the meadow in the bright moonlight, to the big black shadow of the lone pine that watches over your grave. I thought how odd it was that I could lose you quickly, so sadly, and now can only sit down by your bones. But at least there is something of you here. I feel lucky to have that much. Not many people get that.

 I thought I might tell you how it all was today, how it has been for me here alone, but found I had nothing to say that wasn’t covered by the moonlight. I looked at the perfect black blot of my head’s shadow on the still-bare clay of your grave, looked at the black spikes of liatris poking up, heard you in my head saying, “Prairie GAAAAYfeather!” and sort of quarter-smiled. I looked at the outline of our house against the sky, the only light a pale blue glow emanating from my little fishtank in the kitchen. I needed some other souls in the kitchen, so I bought three tiny guppies, who swim up and down and side to side in their miniature world, begging for flakes. 

 The guppies, my sweet dog,

 the sunset luau of that hibiscus,

 the daffodils, the patio…the endless brush cutting and clearing; even the 16 goldfinches twittering in their cages all over the house; the bats and woodcocks and thrashers and wrinkly dry peas counted out…they’re all hedges against sorrow, really, they’re what keeps me with the living, on this side of the clay. Today was hard. Tomorrow will be what it will be, I suppose, and my feet will go on, and my heart will have to go along with them.

To you, Will.

Caught In the Whirlpool

Tuesday, March 16, 2021


Heads up: It's taken me more than a week to write this post. So it's a bit of a chronicle, rather than a summation.  I took down the last tube feeder today, March 10. It sounds like such a simple thing to do.

But I lay awake night after night and even wept about it. Isn’t that a weird thing to have to confess? 


For weeks, I have been caught in a whirlpool of guilt and obsession. Those two things always seem to be swirling in the waters of my misery. I had this thing going, and it was rolling along, dragging me down with it. Here’s what I've been doing. I would disinfect my tube feeder every day, and keep it filled with sunflower hearts, so I could continue to attract the sick goldfinches I would then catch and take inside to treat and heal.

And here’s the flaw with that: I kept thinking that at some point I would run out of sick birds, and then I’d be done catching them, and keeping them in hospital cages.  I’d keep each one and treat it for three weeks, and I’d release them all, and that would be that.  I’d be done with this horrid epidemic for this spring.



This poor little gal's whole head is swollen. No worries--she is back to normal proportions now. She can see fine, but has three weeks in sick bay to go.

But what happened in actual fact, while I was continuing to feed, is that more sick birds showed up every day. That is not what was supposed to happen, to my mind. It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted this to stop. I thought I was doing something to help. As I look out at the lone peanut feeder that remains, there are eight sick goldfinches and at least five sick house finches hopping forlornly around on the ground underneath it, looking for crumbs. And it breaks my heart in two. How can it be that I have nine birds in the hospital, and 13 more outside who need help?


Well, I figured out the answer, but I had to smash and claw through multiple layers of rationalization and denial before I got there. Yesterday I sat down with my binoculars and watched the blinded finches feeding at that carefully disinfected tube feeder. Their swollen, goopy eyes rubbed against the feeder ports as they went in for each seed. I realized that I could take that feeder in and switch it out with a disinfected one three times a day, and I would still be infecting birds. All my precautions meant nothing. And my rationale, that I was “helping” the birds by continuing to feed them so I could take them into care simply fell apart, because I had a sick finch factory right in front of my nose.  I was so blinded by my own zeal to care for them all that I failed to see the mechanism of transmission. I had lost sight of the big picture, if I'd ever seen it at all.


Because I am someone who needs to understand how everything is connected, I have explained in a previous post how the wild bird trade, a deliberate historic release of house finches in New York, and their resultant inbreeding depression have made Eastern house finches helpless against this scourge. But this current epidemic in my yard, I’m tracing back to plant genetics. I don't know if my theory holds true anywhere else, but it's a theory.


I’m sure this sounds weird, but stay with me. A few years ago, the sunflower feeder I’d used for decades, which is a big cylinder of hardware cloth with two metal pie plates on top and bottom, stopped feeding seed. Here's my favorite picture of my favorite feeder. So simple, yet so functional. The beauty of it is that birds don't contact anything but the seed. They pull it out of the mesh and they don't have to rub their eyes on any surface to get it.

 Oh. And there's a scarlet tanager there, checking it out, because checking out what other birds do is how birds learn. I call this photo "A Few Red Birds."

This feeder served me for 20 years. But in the last few years, I could fill that thing up on a frigid snowy winter day and the birds would take it down maybe an inch. Before, I could fill the thing twice a day in such conditions, and barely keep up with the demand. What was going on? 

Though I’ve not read this anywhere, it looks to me that black oil sunflower, which was once a slender, elliptical, small-diameter seed, is being bred to be bigger and plumper—wider around, more teardrop-shaped than elliptical. Shiny now, too. It's a lot prettier than the skinny dull gray black oil seed we started with, but the shiny fat seeds won’t fit through the mesh of my trusty, more hygeinic feeder. The seed goes in, but it just won’t come back out. Before, birds could cling to the outside of that feeder, grab a seed and work it easily out of the mesh without touching anything but the seed itself. It was a much cleaner way to feed the birds. Now, it's a Hotel California for sunflower seed. I suspect my mesh feeder is not the only one affected. 


During the extreme cold snap this winter, I took that old trusty feeder in and retired it. It just wasn’t working any more, and with weeks on end of deep snow cover, I needed to deliver a LOT of seed to hungry birds. I turned back to the tube feeders that had been hanging unused in the garage for years. I missed my old large-capacity feeder, but what good is it if the birds can’t get the seed out of it? Throughout the February cold spell, my birds fed from tube feeders, for the first time in literally years. And toward the end of the snap, when the snow was still on the ground, I started finding sick goldfinches. Not sure what the incubation period for Mycoplasma might be, but I get the feeling it’s around two to three weeks.  I picked up the first blind goldfinch on February 21. And then there came a cascade of them in the first week of March. I told myself that I must have gotten  a new flock, and the sick birds had come in with them. But I no longer think that’s what happened. 

                                      I think that my tube feeders made them sick.


Weird to think that a quirk of plant breeding could cause me to switch to tube feeders, and worsen an epidemic that's already terrible. I'm pretty sure that's what happened here on Indigo Hill. 

I implore you, if you’re still with me, don’t glance out at your feeders, see lots of birds sitting on them, and assume they're all fine. Take the time to get out your binoculars and really look at each eye on every bird. If you see squinty eyes, dull eyes, messed up feathers on the head, or swollen, closed, blind eyes, you have Mycoplasma in your flock. If a bird has one closed eye, within a week, both will close. And if you’re feeding birds with Mycoplasma, you’re just inviting healthy birds in to catch and spread it. You are creating a bacterial hotspot, and luring birds in to get infected.


March 10: There’s a male house finch circling the peanut feeder, flying like a yoyo with his body strangely upright, tail fanned. That’s because he can barely see. Eight goldfinches are shuffling around on the ground beneath. Four more house finches flutter in, and I feel sick. In the foyer, the incessant twitter of three goldfinches from the first batch. In a back bedroom, constant twittering from six more, the captive legacy of my good intentions. I've been “helping birds” by feeding them and treating them with three straight weeks of Tylan in their water, without being able to grasp that I am to blame for their being sick in the first place.


It’s that whirlpool again, that cycle of guilt and obsession. I made them sick. I need to fix them. I’ll keep feeding them so I can catch them and make them well again. If I can just catch the last two…three…eight…thirteen…In the time it took me to write this post, I went out and caught another one who had gone completely blind today (March 10). That makes ten, and this is crazy, and it makes me miserable. And I'm still trying to fix it.

                                         Tube feeder. The round recessed seed port is the problem. 


The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result. Please don’t laud me for my “big heart” for taking care of sick birds. I'm the one who's done the harm, and doing some good is the least I can do to atone. Just go out and check your birds. If you find signs of disease, then do the right thing, hard as it is. Take those feeders down! And, if you care about your birds, retire the tube feeders for good.  It's really hard to quit feeding. Believe me, I understand. I have been there again and again. 

Mesh feeders like Ol' Trusty are better than tube feeders, but I'm certainly not saying they can't and won't spread Mycoplasma. Here's a blinded female house finch, poised to infect three other species by sitting on the feeder tray. House finches also like to sit in birdbaths when they feel ill. I would be happy never having seen a house finch in the East. I love them, and it's not their fault they have no genetic resistance. But I wish I didn't have them around.

 Mesh feeders are better than tube/port feeders, but they aren't perfect. The same goes for the feeders shown below. 

 I love this hanging platform feeder, made of recycled plastic and stainless steel. Because it's open to the elements, I added a dome,which keeps the seed, if not completely dry, at least drier, and keeps droppings mostly out of the tray. 


The peanut feeder is a mesh-style feeder, with  no ports to collect bacteria from goopy eyes. Also equipped with a plexi dome to keep the peanuts dry. 

And my crude cinder-block construction called Cyanocity works pretty darn well to keep seed dry and keep birds safer. While birds will defecate atop the cinder blocks, I've never found poop in the chambers of the blocks, because birds tend to cling and reach in with their heads only. 

Again, this is virtually contactless feeding, which is what we're looking for in feeders. My beautiful hairy woodpecker male--I love him so much!

Meanwhile, the soundtrack in my house is still a constant twitter/ping/flutter. Seed hulls are scattered everywhere around the three cages, and it takes about an hour first thing every morning to service and clean them. I can't sit back and enjoy watching the birds; they're far too wild to suffer being looked at. I took this shot by creepin' my phone's lens under the cage cover. I keep only the side facing the window uncovered. For the brief moments I'm changing papers and replacing dishes, the birds flutter as if the most horrible monster in the world is trying to kill them. They hate my guts, and that's the way it is with wild things when they're caged. 

I let the finch collected February 21 go on March 13, after three weeks of confinement. She flew like a bullet and that felt WONDERFUL. But the exhilaration of watching her roller-coaster flight high above budding maples was short-lived.

I caught and brought into treatment Finch #14 on March 14. Even if I stopped now, I'll still be caring for finches into mid-April. So far, there are four more out there that I've got my eye on. New infections seem to be slowing down. But I'm probably not the one to ask, or to prognosticate. 

I'm still caught in the whirlpool, and I'm swimming as fast as I can.  

Miracle on the Patio

Friday, March 12, 2021


8 o'clock on March 6, 2021, a beautiful  Saturday morning. I'm making breakfast when I look out and see a goldfinch huddled on the doormat. Which says "WELCOME." Well, that's interesting. Not used to having them come to the front door!  I don't even have to lift the binoculars to know this bird has Mycoplasma. Well, I'll deal with that one later. Right now, I'm trying to fit in a little breakfast, in between disinfecting feeders and catching birds and cleaning cages.

With a heavy sigh, I put my little bowl of homemade muesli and berries together, drown it in almond milk, and take it and my sweet boy Curtis Loew down to the --squeeee!--new PATIO! I finally got sick of having to mow in this Godforsaken corner, sick of the mud around the door, and especially tired of having to dig out my hillbilly French drain every time it rained hard and long. Yep, I'd be out there in each downpour, trencher in hand, digging out the little rut from the door to the lower slope of the backyard. I'd clear away the dirt and the trench would leap with water. Otherwise, that water would come straight in under the basement door. It got old. 

So the patio's purpose was manyfold, and it finally went in this January, courtesy Thomson's Landscaping in Marietta, Ohio. Yes, it's a water control system, but it's also absolutely delicious to have a little paved court where I can bask in the spring sun. Curtis has a big old foam pad to lie on. You should see him wag when I suggest we take breakfast on the patio! If I had a tail it'd be wagging, too! I can't wait to plant some nice flowers in the terraced beds--the salvias I overwintered in the basement should do nicely. Then it'll be a hummingbird observatory! Woot!!

Curtis and I were basking, taking a rare moment to relax, when straight down from the sky came a little female goldfinch. It looked just like the one who had been sitting on the front porch earlier. It was clear from the way she flew, her body straight up and down, her wingbeats tentative, her tail spread to brake, that she couldn't see much at all. Poor wee thing!  But look how Curtis watches it, without dashing after it. That, my friends, is PROGRESS with a mountain cur! I didn't have to say a word. He just knew he shouldn't go after this bird. 

A lot of cool stuff happens to me, stuck way back out here in the wilderness. But this was one of the coolest things, and I'm so glad I thought to get video of her approaching me and Curtis. I had to wonder why that little bird, who was feeling so vulnerable and bad, came to my front porch--and then made her way down to the patio where I was sitting. Could she possibly have been trying to get help? Trying to find the lady who had been filling the feeders? Who had picked up so many sick goldfinches and taken them inside? Stranger things have happened. We must never underestimate what birds know, and never assume we understand why they do what they do. 

A bunch of people on my social media feed have asked for a video of me capturing a goldfinch. Well, catching a free-flying wild bird with your bare hands, compromised or not, is NOT something you can really do one-handed while making a video. If I was ever going to be able to pull that off, it was now. I had a blinded finch in a wide-open space. I decided to give it a go. Watch the Gentle Cobra in action!


I was shocked at how emaciated and weak this poor wee bird was once I got her in my hand. She was by far the sickest of the now NINE birds I've captured and am treating. Um, make that twelve. So sick that she wouldn't eat, even after her big first dose of Tylan water. So she stayed in the intensive care bin for two days, and I force-fed her nestling formula with a syringe. I was elated when she finally began to self-feed again! Once she was eating on her own and could see, I could put her in the community hospital cage. Except that one was full. 


So I let her sleep in the ICU while I prepped another, larger cage that I put in Liam's room. Seeing her put her head under her back feathers gave a pang to my heart.

I went to the crowded foyer cage, which now had six goldfinches binging off its sides, and caught two birds to be her cagemates. Here's a male who was really sick, but he's seeing now and looks so much better! I can tell it's a male because his black cap is coming in. Females don't have a black cap.

And here's a little female who looks really bright! Oh, if you could have seen these birds when they came in just a few days earlier!

The new cage, waiting for more patients. Patio Finch went in here, with a nice window looking out onto where she was caught.

I've taken down all of my tube feeders. I'm keeping only a peanut feeder up so I can, I hope, catch the last few sick goldfinches from this flock. Once I've got them, the peanut feeder will come down. I just cannot continue to feed with this epidemic raging. I don't want my feeding station to be an infection point for innocent birds. 

And so I ask you, if you're seeing sick finches--house or gold--with swollen, closed eyes, please harden your heart and take your feeders down. Allow the birds to disperse. Don't invite them into a place that's teeming with Mycoplasma. They're better off foraging naturally, dispersed and socially distanced. Soak your feeders in a joint compound bucket with detergent and bleach (one part bleach to 10 parts water, or a good healthy glug for a full bucket). Let them soak for 15 min, and soak all parts--flip them over if they're too long to submerge completely. Rinse them and put them away for a few weeks, or--as I do now--  for the spring and summer. You might need to bust them back out for that March or April snowstorm, or that cruel May freeze, and you'll be glad you disinfected them if you do. 

Thank you.

Goldfinch Hospital: The 2021 Mycoplasma Outbreak

Monday, March 8, 2021


It's March 8, and I have just caught, by hand, my eighth American goldfinch for treatment for Mycoplasma gallinae infection. This is the disease my blue jay Jemima had, for which I treated her successfully, and wrote about in Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-luck Jay. 

 (Yes, that's a link, because I'm selling signed copies off my website now, whee!)

But I'm going to take you back to February 21 for my first patient's story. This was the first goldfinch I found that succumbed to the disease, and I tried to catch her for at least a week, but she was too quick for me. I sneak up on the bird quietly and slowly and snatch it with my hand, either from the perch on the tube feeder or from the ground. This one was so cagey she had to be completely blind and sitting in the snow on a subfreezing day for me to finally grab her. By then, she was skin and bones, and she didn't make a peep when my hand finally closed around her. 

Little did I know what would unfold from there.

Mycoplasma, or house finch disease, affects more than 30 other species of wild birds. It started off with domestic poultry, and Eastern house finches first caught it in 1994. Because the Eastern population of house finches is terribly inbred, all being descended from one release event at JFK Airport in 1939, our house finches have little to no resistance to the pathogen. (Western birds apparently do!). Mycoplasma causes conjunctivitis that is painful and which, in the space of a few days, can rob the bird of its eyesight. That's when I creep in and make my grab. 

This is the worst Mycoplasma spring I've ever experienced. Hey, why not? Pandemics are the thing. Seriously, though, I suspect that the bitter cold and snow cover that hung in here in Ohio for about three weeks may have caused otherwise healthy birds to succumb to the germ, which is everywhere in the environment, but especially concentrated around OUR FEEDING STATIONS. Yep, humans are behind this, as we are behind almost all of the mishaps that befall wild birds. 

Look at this: Humans keep domestic fowl in crowded quarters so they often get sick, and poor husbandry allowed the disease to pass on to wild birds. Humans kept house finches as pets before passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, importing them from California to pet shops in New York. And it was humans who released a shipment of house finches, and caused them to spread throughout the East. Our feeders encouraged the wildfire spread of this American native (but exotic-to-the-East) species. Because of inbreeding depression, these Eastern finches have no resistance to new pathogens. And what do we do? Keep feeding them; create concentration points for unnatural numbers of wild birds. Yes, it's our feeders that encourage the spread of Mycoplasma to more than 30 species of wild birds. (I'm looking out at my one freshly bleached tube feeder, kept full of seed for the express purpose of catching sick goldfinches, and I see three more goldfinches and one house finch out there with goopy eyes). I'm caught in a whirlpool here, trying to remove all the sick birds from this enormous flock of 60 plus birds, disinfecting and raking...tending cages...arrgh. It's a lot. Hence no blogposts for almost a month. But on with the story...

First stop for a completely blind bird is my hand, with a dropper of Tylan-laced water, which they guzzle down eagerly. That sets them on the road to recovery.  This bird is drinking from a little pool of Tylan water on my knuckle. (I can't administer the medicine and make a video at the same time). 

Then they are confined in a small plastic Critter Keeper, with shallow dishes of food and water that the bird can feel underfoot.  Almost all of them begin to eat and drink on their own; they're starved and very thirsty by the time I am able to catch them. Generally, within 24 hours, the stuck-shut swollen eyes show marked improvement and the bird regains at least some its sight. Some need force-feeding and more droppers of Tylan for a couple of days before they can see well again and are strong enough to make it in the larger cage.

Once they're sighted and eating on their own, they go to one of two larger cages I've got set up. One is in my foyer, and one is back in Liam's room. (sorry, Liam; I put a dropcloth down!) Both face out toward windows so they can see where they are going once they're better. I think that giving them hope of returning to the wild is so important in wildlife rehab. I hate to see creatures kept in dark, shrouded quarters, even as I understand that in a busy clinic, that can be the only choice. 

I keep the side toward the window clear, but I use a tablecloth to cover three sides of the cage facing into the house. This works very well. The birds swiftly associate the blank cloth with safety, and don't panic and flutter against the bars when they hear me walk by. I can service the cage once a day, replacing food and Tylan water and changing the papers, and then leave them in peace until the next morning.
Ideally, I'd have nylon-sided caging, but this is what I have, and it works pretty well.

In this video, the Feb. 21 bird has dislodged her cage cover and freaks out when Curtis and I come up the stairs first thing in the morning. It's hard to believe this wildly fluttering creature is the same bird I picked up off the snow, only four days later. Oh, the miracle drug Tylosin does a beautiful job on Mycoplasma.

I think the word got out that there was a nice lady treating sick goldfinches in Whipple, Ohio. It wasn't long before I had my hands--and cage--completely full. I've gotten a little too good at grabbing the partially-blinded but still flying birds off the tube feeders. I guess it appeals to the hunter-gatherer in me. I find it thrilling to stalk softly, ever so slowly advancing so the poor nearsighted thing can't tell I'm there. And I absolutely love the grab. I strike like a gentle cobra--lightning fast but softly. It's an art.

Soon I had more birds than I could handle in the foyer cage, so I had to get the stepladder and retrieve a second, larger cage from the rafters of the garage, where Bill had stuck it years and years ago. I was thrilled to find it intact and needing only a good scrubbing to go back into service. Here's the first cage, before I got the second set up.

Each time I capture a goldfinch, I tell it, "Your day just got better, sweetie. You don't know it yet, but you're going to feel so much better by tonight! And tomorrow you'll be able to see again! 

Now, before y'all go rushing out to try to find Tylan and set up your own goldfinch hospital, there are some things you need to know. First, Tylan is available by prescription only. Second, it's expensive--my little 6 oz. bottle of powder cost an eye-popping $75.00. Third, and most important, you have to know what you're doing, and have licenses, both state and federal, to take in, handle and treat migratory birds. I've got those permits. And fourth--you have to keep the birds on Tylan for 21 days. Trust me--it's an eternity to have to feed, water, clean up after and listen to that many birds for three weeks.

And no. You absolutely cannot put Tylan in your bird bath and try to treat the world. Tylan-laced water has to be the bird's ONLY water source, so it won't work because your feeder birds can get water elsewhere; you have to change it every three days; and the likelihood that they'll hang around for three solid weeks is very low; and healthy wild birds absolutely don't need a strong medication. And we really hugely don't need to encourage a drug-resistant variant of Mycoplasma to develop out there. This one is bad enough!  And no, this is NOT the same germ that you may have heard is causing a lot of finch deaths in the West: that is salmonellosis. Birds with salmonellosis are lethargic and puffed up and sneezy, but they don't get swollen eyes and go blind the way Mycoplasma-infected birds do. 

I am being very explicit here so I won't have  so many questions to answer in the comments section. My time and answers are necessarily short this spring, because caring for eight goldfinches takes a lot out of me. But oh, the rewards. In my next post, I'll tell you the story of one of my patients who will touch your heart: 
Patio Finch.

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