Column: Promoting a healthy bird population

As longtime bird watchers, my husband and I greatly enjoy the several feeders in our yard, so it wasn't hard to notice when we saw a goldfinch that was "not quite right."...

Juvenile goldfinch
This juvenile goldfinch is suffering from mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. (Photo courtesy of Michele Trautlein)

As longtime bird watchers, my husband and I greatly enjoy the several feeders in our yard, so it wasn't hard to notice when we saw a goldfinch that was "not quite right."

Usually their bright yellow feathers dart around our yard at breakneck speeds, but this time, a juvenile male was sitting on the feeder hardly moving. He bobbed his head looking for small seeds with no shells because he was so weak. Upon closer inspection it looked like the poor guy had a wood tick covering his left eye.

Because he was unable to see, I was able to get close for a better look. I admit I was a little shocked by what I saw. His eye was completely swollen shut.

I called Wildwoods, feeling a little frantic. I had never seen anything like this but I hoped they could help.

At Wildwoods, Peggy explained that this condition is called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. Symptoms include red, watery or crusty eyes. The eyes eventually swell closed and if left untreated, the disease can cause blindness. Without sight, the bird will die of starvation. Thankfully, Peggy explained, treatment can cure this disease.


Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis was originally introduced from domestic chickens and turkeys into the house finch population. House Finches were sold illegally in pet stores in the 1940s. To avoid prosecution for illegally keeping wild birds, some owners released the birds into the wild. They thrived, but because finches are social and forage in flocks, others in the finch genus were soon infected, including goldfinches.

As responsible friends of the birds, my family wants to do what we can to help prevent the spread of this and other diseases. There are several simple steps we can all take.

First, clean your birdfeeders and birdbaths at least once a month to keep them safe. An inexpensive cleaner is a 10-percent bleach solution (one part bleach and nine parts water). Scrub, then let the feeders dry completely before you put them up again.

Another tactic to prevent the spread of diseases is to place your feeders at a distance from each other. This helps prevent birds from crowding together and will lessen contact between healthy and

sick birds.

A third way to protect birds from disease is to keep the area underneath the feeder clean by raking to remove old seeds and droppings that may harbor diseases.

Despite these efforts, you may still see a bird that is ill or injured like that poor goldfinch at my feeder.

What should you do? Most important, don't try to care for the bird yourself. It's illegal to possess wild birds unless you are licensed to care for them.


Instead, contact a wildlife rehab organization like Wildwoods and describe what you see. They may recommend that you bring the bird to them for treatment.

Don't try to catch it by hand, as this can injure the animal. Instead, quickly put a light dish towel over the bird and gently grasp it through the towel. Then place it into a box and bring it to a rehabilitator.

That's exactly what I did. We captured our sick goldfinch and, later, several others suffering from this disease. With Wildwoods' help, they were all successfully treated and released back into the flock in our yard.

For the two of us in our house, the wildlife outside is as much a part of our family as our inside pets. By taking a little extra care, we can help our wild friends to be healthier and happier.

Oh, there goes another goldfinch!

Michele Trautlein is a volunteer with Wildwoods, which is a wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For more information on wildlife and how you can help, including becoming a volunteer, please visit .

What To Read Next
Get Local