The head of the Nova Scotia Bird Society says the public saved countless birds in Eastern Canada this summer by putting away bird feeders and curbing a deadly infection that continues to spread across the region.

But it's still too early to put the feeders back up, says Dave Currie.

The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative has received 105 reports of dead birds spanning Quebec to Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I think that number is a small reflection of what actually happened," said the bird society's Currie. "I think the number of deaths were considerably higher than that." 

Birds unable to swallow

It's believed the birds died of the avian parasite trichomoniasis. It attacks the throat, leaving birds unable to swallow.

The parasite largely affects finches, who are social birds and pass it on through contaminated food and water. The sick birds look puffed up and lethargic.

This summer, experts asked people to remove their bird feeders and bird baths to stop the spread.

bird feeder

The avian parasite trichomoniasis largely affects finches. (Diane Poirier)

While cases are still being reported, it's nothing like the initial outbreak earlier in the summer.

"We may not ever know the exact value that happened," Currie said of the community efforts. "It's obvious that the number of calls that we got for dead and dying birds certainly didn't happen at the end of August when the disease was prevalent."

105 reported deaths

The deaths are being monitored by the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, which is tracking them through a map. The breakdown includes: 

  • 19 cases in Prince Edward Island.
  • 31 deaths in New Brunswick.
  • 39 reports in Nova Scotia.
  • 9 cases in Quebec.
  • 7 in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fiep de Bie, a wildlife technician for the CWHC, agrees that the 105 reports to the organization just scratches the surface of the number of birds that likely died this summer.

Many more could have died in locations away from humans, or if they were spotted, people might not have realized the cause.

Either way, she says the number is alarming.

"It seemed to have started earlier than usual," said de Bie. "We got our first report at the end of June, and usually it will be in July, the end of July."

The parasite naturally dies over the winter, so de Bie says the outbreak this year likely won't be an indication of what will happen next year.

"I hope it's not a trend. Of course we're speculating, does it have anything to do with change of temperature, climate change? We really don't know the answer to that. We hope not, of course," she said. 

"The weather has been quite warm. And also this parasite survives in moist, warm weather."

Keep bird feeders down

Currie has received a number of calls recently from people wanting to know if it's safe to put their bird feeders out again. It's still too soon, he says. 

"It won't be until the temperatures get colder that we see a reduction in the number of transmissions from one infected bird to another." 

Trichomoniasis was first reported in the Atlantic provinces in 2007, and Currie believes it is here to stay. He says people need to start looking at bird feeding differently.

Birds can find plenty of food on their own in the summer. It's only the winter when they could use help from humans, he says.

"In the winter, the birds have some biological benefit to finding extra sources of food," Currie said. "Maybe we look at winter bird feeding like we used to years and years ago. It was usually the thing to do — just feed the birds in the winter, then take the feeders down and store them for the summer."