Parasite forces bird lovers to put away feeders for summer

Bird lovers are being asked to put away their bird feeders for the summer because of a deadly infection spreading among birds across Atlantic Canada.

Trichomoniasis can lead to infection in the throats of birds, making it difficult to swallow

This purple finch shows signs of trichomoniasis, including wet, matted feathers. (Sheryl and Doug Wilson/The Canadian Veterinary Journal)

A deadly infection spreading across the Maritimes is forcing bird lovers to put away their bird feeders.

The avian parasite trichomoniasis can lead to an infection in the throats of birds, preventing them from swallowing.

The infection can affect all birds, but primarily sickens finches, since they tend to flock in larger groups.

Dave Currie, president of the Nova Scotia Bird Society, has received dozens of reports from people throughout the Maritimes, about sick or very lethargic birds at their feeders and look extremely unwell.

"A little bit of research, and understanding what we're seeing on some of these photos, led us to believe we have this outbreak of trichomoniasis," he said.

How it's spread

Trichomoniasis spreads when a bird's contaminated saliva gets into water and food consumed by other birds. The rain New Brunswick has received in recent weeks would have helped spread the infection, Currie said.

But platform feeders, table feeders and bird seed on the ground all enable the spread of the parasite from an infected bird to other birds, he said.

"Instead of perching on a branch, they're probably too weak," he said. "They'll go on the ground or on a table feeder to rest or even in a bird bath, and they could easily leave behind a parasite."

Transmission often starts with regurgitation, used by adult birds to feed their young.

"If they're carrying the food back in their crop, and they're trying to feed the young ones in the nest with this regurgitated material, and if that bird happens to be infected, they're also now infected," he said.    

What to do

Currie advised people to take down their bird feeders. Using gloves, wash the feeders in a mild solution of bleach and water and let the feeder dry out. It can be put back in a few weeks.  

Although birds might be reliant on the food source homeowners provide, the removal of the feeders won't hurt them.

"In the summertime, we could be fairly confident the birds are going to be able to leave your backyard," he said. "They may come back and look for those feeders that you just took down, but they will find food elsewhere."  

Although there is no risk of humans contracting trichomoniasis, he said there is a chance of getting salmonella, a bacteria that can be transmitted from birds to humans.

Dogs and cats are not affected by trichomoniasis but pet birds can be.

Anyone who sees a sick bird can report it to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton