Background Switcher (Hidden)

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.  


Ah Julie, a Master’s work is never quite done... thank you for educating us once again! You rock, girl!

Thankfully I don’t have any tube feeders and will be sure not to buy any. Is this disease all over the US or is it prevalent in your area? Just curious. Taking the feeders down is always sad, I miss seeing them. I am filling my feeders now only when the weather dips into the 30’s. I have already moved on to hummingbirds. Talk about a full time job! First hummer arrived March 12, exactly the same as last year!

I am not convinced it was a lack of genetic diversity in the eastern House Finch population to blame for their susceptibility. If so, then the disease would have ended with them. The presence of it on goldfinches seems to suggest it's something all finches are susceptible to.

Julie, dear, you have had so much to tear you apart in recent years that I can't bear to see you tearing yourself apart over this as well. Don't beat yourself up for your good intentions. My entirely unsolicited advice: Treat and release the finches currently under your care, buy yourself a new set of feeders, and give yourself absolution.

I wonder if "oilseed sunflower" is the old type and "confection seed" is the new type, and the old type is still available? I'm sure you've researched it, but just in case, here's an article.

I have cinder blocks so I'll set them up. I have 3 tube feeders, I will watch tomorrow with the binoculars. Thanks for the information.

I have noticed that the birds are not using my mesh feeders like they used to, so I dug out a long-unused tube feeder. No sick finches yet (the feeders are right outside the kitchen window and easy to observe), but I will take the thing down tomorrow. Thank you!

Not sure I follow your reasoning here, Rob. Why would the disease end with house finches when it started in domestic fowl and got passed to house finches, which were wildly susceptible? House finches continue to be the primary vector into wild birds and feeders are the hotspots. They seem not to be able to resist the bacterium. Clearly, other birds are. But this explosion in goldfinches really worries me. I’ve seen it before but not like this.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Thank you for this post. I have a few tube feeders but also a WBU Quick-Clean finch feeder and a mesh metal nyjer feeder. I think both of those have small enough holes that they don’t bury their faces or rub up against anything... I’m going to take down my tube feeders today, because I’m just over the way in Athens and have seen a swollen-eyed house finch. I’d like my yard to be a welcome spot for the Red-Breasted Grosbeaks when they come through in a couple of weeks so I’ll be sanitizing my platform feeders this weekend and keeping them inside for a while.

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wow, Julie. Thanks for this post. It all makes sense now. I'm so glad that you posted this because I'm going to have to check out my birds and feeders. I'm so sorry that you've had to go through this, but I appreciate your dedication to figuring out the problem and working to resolve it. Best of luck to you and the birds that you're helping. And thanks again for the heads-up on the feeder situation.

I found your blogs through a link from Birdwatcher’s Digest. I live in Philadelphia and saw my first sick goldfinch two weeks ago, blind, sitting on a feeder. I took everything down and bleached feeders, baffles, everything. Kept them down for days that seemed like an eternity. Found a wildlife rehab that treats them outside of Philly after I saw a second sick finch. I first put back the upside down nyjer feeders with the tiny holes but I eventually put back a couple of regular nyjer tube feeders as well as the cardinal safflower (not tubes) and woodpecker and nuthatch suet sandwich feeders. I saw a goldfinch on the ground yesterday and am again concerned although it did fly away. it is unusual to see a goldfinch on the ground. Are all my feeders at risk? Help! Also, I am seeing fewer house finches than usual. They feed with the cardinals at the safflower seed feeder. I haven’t noticed any sick house finches but there are fewer than normal. Are cardinals and nuthatches at risk for this disease, too?

Ah, another sleuthy gift for your readers. Thank you. I find the solving pieces you write most enjoyable. Have you read much Arthur Conan Doyle? Your approach reminds me of his material somehow.

As to the whirlpool, paternal instinct prompts me to toss you some kind of rope. Of course you may grab it or not as you wish. The rope comes courtesy of another writer in a different context. I find the following advice about whirlpools from Ken Whiting in his book, The Ultimate Guide to Whitewater Kayaking. He says, “... you can take comfort in the fact that the whirlpool will eventually die out. Sometimes it will take only seconds for a whirlpool to grow and then disappear, while others can last ten seconds or longer. Invariably, though, the whirlpool will settle out as it moves downstream. This is nice to know when you find yourself upside down in a whirlpool, because it can sometimes be very difficult to roll. If you're having trouble rolling, or even moving your paddle into a set up position, try to relax and wait for the whirlpool to dissipate.”

Your, Watson, truly.

I wish. This is just Tony.

Mycoplasma Galliseptum is a disease of poultry as well as wild birds. If as a rehabber you can get a vet to write you a prescription for Tylan powder you can add it to the water the sick birds drink to help. Chances are though they will remain carriers. Check with an avian vet to be sure. But we have used it for poultry for years.

@MizGreenJeans, your comment helps me realize that, while I mention treating the finches for three weeks with antibiotics, I don't name Tylan specifically. I do in previous and subsequent posts. Gonna fix that. Thank you. Tylan is what I use, and the reason that the poultry literature states that birds likely remain carriers after treatment is that the bottle instructions for captive fowl say to treat them for five days. And nobody likely ever puts domestic fowl on Tylan for three weeks, like I'm doing here. Five days of treatment isn't going to do it. My wild birds get Tylan for three weeks straight. The one bird (Jemima Jay) I followed for seven months after three weeks of successful Tylan treatment was still asymptomatic and clear when I lost track of her.

This post is genius and I'm really surprised it didn't get further reach given the mysterious bird disease this year. I'm noticing a lot more of likely finch disease posts on many of my FB birding pages in Pennsylvania. I'm gonna be sharing this anytime I see one pop up.

[Back to Top]