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Loving Birds to Death and the Importance of Cleaning Feeders

Photo of bird with crusty eye

Goldfinch with eye disease by Bill Beil

In 1994, a group of Project FeederWatchers in Washington, D.C. noticed house finches showing up to their feeders with red, swollen, crusty eyes. The ailments were soon found to be linked to house finch eye disease, or mycoplasmal conjunctivitis.

Conjunctivitis is caused by a bacteria, and different species of bacteria affect different organisms. The bacterium known to infect local house finches has also been documented impacting species such as American goldfinches, evening grosbeaks and purple finches.

After the outbreak, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology launched the House Finch Disease Survey, which ran until 2008. The project helped document the spread of the disease across the U.S. and has allowed researchers to understand more about it. Today, disease data is still documented, but all data is now reported through Project FeederWatch.

If you feed birds, keep an eye out for any finch species that may appear to have red, swollen and/or crusty eyes. Sometimes, birds will sit in your yard and scratch their eyes while others may appear completely listless. Some birds can kick the disease on their own while others pass away from starvation or predation.

If you can capture the sick bird, they often can be taken to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

If you find any sick birds at your feeder, be sure to take it down and thoroughly disinfect it before putting it back up. Sometimes, it is best to keep the feeder down until the sick bird moves on. Otherwise, your feeder can become a hub for disease transmission.

Happy holidays HabiChat fans!

While I am not a big fan of wintertime, I am excited to see new visitors to my backyard.

Since winter is a great time for bird watching, much of this HabiChat is dedicated to projects and plants that will help local bird species. Learn about local research on native plants and how they help native birds, read up on evening grosbeaks and why their return to Maryland is special, learn about our native silky dogwood, and finally, keep an eye out for finch eye disease.

Winter is also a time for maintenance projects, so don’t forget to clean out and repair nest boxes and prune your shrubs and trees. Remember, water is crucial to many species this time of year. Consider adding a heated bird bath or pet water bowl to your landscape to help local wildlife. If you are looking for fun projects to do with the kids, try a winter safari or making seed wreaths.

In addition, the University of Maryland Extension’s Woodland Stewardship Education has several upcoming events that may be of interest to backyard enthusiasts. Registration for the spring session of The Woods in Your Backyard online course will be open soon. This self-paced, non-credit course runs 10 weeks from March 5-May 21, 2019, helping landowners convert lawn to natural areas and to enhance stewardship of existing natural areas.

As a final note, the Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas is now available, containing information on more than 80 reptile and amphibian species. Data was collected by local biologists and nearly 1,000 community scientists. Each species is given a detailed account of identification characters, life history information, and where it was found across the state.

Happy Habitats,
Kerry Wixted

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In this Issue
Habitat Tips: Native Birds Need Native Plants
Loving Birds to Death & the Importance of Cleaning Feeders
Native Animal Profile: Evening Grosbeak
Native Plant Profile: Silky Dogwood