Keep an eye out for infectious bird disease, says wildlife pathologist

The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative is reminding people in the Atlantic Provinces to keep an eye out for birds displaying symptoms of trichomoniasis — a potentially deadly bird disease.

Trichomoniasis was first documented in Atlantic Canada in 2007

Rebecca Clarke MacInnis, from Hammond's Plains, N.S., took a video in her backyard of a sick purple finch showing signs of trichomoniasis. (Submitted by Rebecca Clarke MacInnis)

Bird feeders are a popular way to get a front row seat to the beauty of winged wildlife, but they can also give people a close-up view of the darker sides of life in the wild.

Rebecca Clarke MacInnis, from Hammond's Plains, N.S., noticed a purple finch on May 30th that was not as mobile as the other birds visiting her backyard feeder.

"The poor little thing, she started to have trouble swallowing right at the feeder," Clarke MacInnis said.

"She was just perched on the railing on the deck and she was really slow and her beak was open and she was trying to swallow and trying to breath and you could just tell that she was having major trouble."

Clarke MacInnis recorded the struggling bird and shared the video with a local wildlife group to determine if it was a bird disease called trichomoniasis.

The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) shared the video on their website saying the bird was exhibiting the classic signs of the infectious disease.

Fatal in birds

A microscopic parasite (Trichomonas gallinae) causes the disease trichomoniasis — which is mainly an infection in the mouth and throats of birds, making them unable to swallow. It can also cause birds to have wet or ruffled feathers and food around their face or beak.

Trichomoniasis mainly affects seed-eating birds like American goldfinches and purple finches in Atlantic Canada. The illness is well documented in various birds and is known as canker in pigeons and doves and frounce in raptors.

The parasite does not pose a threat to cats, dogs or humans but pet birds and poultry could be infected according to the CWHC.

Birds across the Atlantic provinces that have died and are suspected of being infected are sent to the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown for testing. (John Robertson/CBC)

There are no lab-confirmed cases so far this year, but that is not uncommon at this time of year.

Most of the time members of the public report sightings of birds with symptoms to the CWHC. If a dead bird is found, they may be brought to the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC) in Charlottetown for further testing.

Experts there test the birds to confirm the disease-causing parasite is present. The first reported cases of trichomoniasis in the Atlantic region were in 2007. 

Cases reported across Atlantic Provinces

In 2017, 107 cases were reported to the CWHC from the Atlantic provinces. Of those, 18 were lab-confirmed, including one in Labrador for the first time. Megan Jones, Atlantic regional director for the CWHC, says the reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg as many sick birds remain undetected and unreported.

"It looks like it can be transmitted at bird feeders and so we want people to be aware that this disease has been here in past summers and we are getting some rumblings and some suggestions that it could be coming back again this year," said Jones, who is also an assistant professor of Wildlife Pathology at AVC.

Megan Jones, Atlantic regional director for the CWHC and an assistant professor of Wildlife Pathology at AVC, asks that people report all distressed or dead birds to the CWHC so they can track the cases. (John Robertson/CBC)

Jones said they are asking people with feeders to be vigilant about the health of the visiting birds.

"We always recommend that it is nice to plant native plants in your garden and that will attract birds on its own," Jones said.

"The birds aren't relying on your feeders in the summertime and so it is a matter of risk versus benefit ... if the the disease has been found in your area, definitely the best thing you can do is take the feeder down."

Keep bird feeders clean

There is information on the CWHC website about sightings in the Atlantic provinces and about the types of feeders that best limit the spread of the disease.

To prevent its further spread, the CWHC had these recommendations:

  • Clean bird feeders and bird baths a few times a month using soapy water and then a weak solution of domestic bleach. The feeder should be rinsed thoroughly and dried out before putting it up again.
  • Avoid table feeders where different birds can sit directly on the seeds. This increases the chances of spreading the parasite.
  • Keep the seeds in the bird feeder dry. Wet seeds create a more suitable environment for the parasites and increase the chances of infecting other birds.
  • Report any sick or dead birds to the CWHC so potential cases can be tracked.
  • Wear gloves when dealing with the bird feeders — even though this disease is not contagious to humans, birds can carry other diseases that can be passed on to humans and other pets.
Trichomoniasis affects mainly finches, goldfinches and purple finches in Atlantic Canada, and can be spread at bird feeders. (Submitted by Rebecca Clarke MacInnis)

If there are reports of a known outbreak of trichomoniasis in your area, the CWHC recommends taking down all bird feeders and artificial water sources.

Feeders should not go back up until cold weather and frost returns in the fall and winter.

Safety of the birds comes first

Clarke MacInnis says she is not taking any chances and the backyard bird feeders are already down.

"I really miss seeing all the birds and it is kind of heartbreaking when you see the other birds that are healthy coming back that are looking for food and there is nothing there," Clarke MacInnis said.

She hopes to see the birds return in the fall — after her feeders have been disinfected once again.

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John Robertson

Video journalist

John Robertson is a multi-platform journalist based out of Charlottetown. He has been with CBC News for more than a decade, with stints in Nunavut, Edmonton and Prince Edward Island. Twitter @CBCJRobertson Instagram @johnrobertsoncbc