Trichomonosis identified in Haliburton County birds
By Sue Tiffin
While watching the birds congregating at the feeder in her back yard, Tracy Patterson knew something was wrong.
The Algonquin Highlands resident has had an avid interest in birds for the past five or six years.
“I first started feeding birds, just from seeing a beautiful goldfinch up close at my friend’s house,” she said. “I had no idea birds like that existed. Like a lot of people, I thought, we’ve got blue jays, we’ve got sparrows, we’ve got ducks and geese and ravens. This bird was just so beautiful I started putting bird feeders out.”
The next year, while tending to bluebird boxes on the next road over for the property owner, she found a baby bluebird, about seven days old, whose parents didn’t come back for it. Patterson raised and released the bird.
“He stuck with us all summer, right up until October, he was wild for about three months before he went south,” she said of the bird that would land on her shoulder and hunt bugs from the perch.
“I do a lot of research, I love reading about them, I love learning about them,” said Patterson, who has taken online courses through Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
It was that interest in birds that made her look up what could possibly be wrong with the finches in her yard. She said they were fluffed up, looking very round and fat, food was coming back out of their bills as they were eating it, they were having difficulty swallowing and they were extremely lethargic.
“Just from watching, you get to learn what their behaviour is like,” she said. “Are they a bird that sits on the feeder and eats for awhile, or are they a bird that grabs a seed and takes it to eat it. The lethargy and being able to approach them is not normal for those birds. They usually scatter if you open your door. They were very lethargic. You could see they were having troubles swallowing and breathing. You could just see, they’re not right. And it’s heartbreaking. They have a long painful death.”
In total, Patterson said 11 birds had died in her yard since July.
“It’s very sad for me seeing them that way, and by the time you can catch them, to get right up and catch them, it’s too late,” she said. “So it’s days of watching them not being well. And struggling. And it’s also sad not to be able to enjoy watching those birds.”
Patterson contacted the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, which asked her to send a sample in to their lab. They sent a cooler and return postage, and with the help of Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary, Patterson was able to send in three dead finches. The necropsy confirmed trichomonosis, a highly contagious disease.
According to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, trichomonosis “is an infectious disease caused by the microscopic parasite Trichomonas gallinae ... The parasite inhabits the upper digestive tract, mainly the crop and esophagus, but it may also infect the liver, lungs, air sacs, internal lining of the body, pancreas and bones and sinuses of the skull.”
It does not pose a health threat to humans or other mammals.
Occurring most often in the summer and early fall, the disease can cause severe damage to the tissues of the mouth, throat and crop.
“Affected birds may have difficulty swallowing, drool saliva, regurgitate food and water, demonstrate laboured breathing and/or have a swollen neck or throat,” reads information on the CWHC website. “In addition to showing signs of general illness (i.e., lethargy, poor flight ability and fluffed up feathers), affected finches are frequently observed to have matted wet plumage around the face and beak, presumably due to regurgitation. Birds with trichomonosis are commonly very thin as the damage to the tissues of the throat and esophagus makes eating and drinking painful and difficult which results in starvation and dehydration.”
Monika Melichar, of Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary, said that besides Patterson’s experience, a rock dove (wild pigeon) was found in Haliburton with an incidence of trichomonosis as well.
“It is a horrid disease caused by a parasite that creates cankers in the mouth, throat, all the way down to the crop,” she said. “The birds can barely breathe, and eating is difficult due to the swelling of the throat. They usually succumb to starvation. The rock dove was very compromised and had to be euthanized. It is a difficult disease to cure, especially in the later stages ... and that is when the birds are so compromised that they can actually be captured.”
Finches have proven to be most susceptible to the disease, and according to the CWHC, more commonly purple finches and goldfinches. Other songbirds can become infected but it is more rare.
“Birds of prey, like hawks and falcons, can also contract this disease by eating prey birds that are infected,” said Melichar. “It can also spread to domestic animals like chickens and pet budgies. Fortunately, the parasite does not survive out of the host for long ... it will dry up.”
An outbreak of increased mortality due to trichomonosis was recorded in 2005, and since 2007, regularly in Atlantic Canada. Because it can be transmitted from saliva or droppings left behind by infected birds, bird feeders and baths where birds flock and gather might potentially be sites of transmission.
Melichar recommends people who spot signs of infected birds, “should immediately remove all their feeders and scrub them clean with diluted bleach.” Information from the CWHC on the “ABC’s of Healthy Bird Feeding,” and the proper care of bird feeders in general and during outbreaks of trichomonosis is available on their website. Besides using a weak solution of bleach as Melichar recommended, bird feeders that keep the seed dry and thus less hospitable to the survival of the parasite are preferred, while table feeders in which birds sit directly on the bird seed are not recommended.
“I took the feeders down because it’s highly contagious, just from adults feeding young, their saliva, or their saliva on the bird feeder ... if they wipe their beaks, which they all do, they wipe their beak to clean them off, they can pass it that way, so congregating them on a feeder makes it an even greater risk of transmitting the disease,” said Patterson. “The feeder itself doesn’t cause the disease. It’s the transmission. If you don’t have feeders, they’re not as likely to get it because they’re not all landing in the exact same spots.”
Wildlife pathologist Brian Stevens, with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, said the group doesn’t have an active research project or tracking of trichomonosis in Ontario at the time, relying instead on the public to report dead wildlife.
“The way that we do track it is by recording all of the cases we get into our national database, which if we see an increase in a certain disease then we can get an idea of where it started and when,” he said. “Ontario hasn’t had a large outbreak of trichomonosis for at least a few years now. We will get the occasional group of birds that die from the disease but we don’t have the same issue of larger populations of birds affected that currently Quebec and the Atlantic provinces have.”
The cases of trichomonosis in Haliburton County are the first Stevens has seen in Ontario this year.
“We have had no other confirmed reports of trichomonosis anywhere else in Ontario this year,” he told the Times of the sample sent by WWS and Patterson. “The last reported cases of trichomonosis were in September 2018 in the Richmond Hill area (that was a single goldfinch that we received, but others had been dying in the area) and a second goldfinch from the Stratford area.”
Stevens said the CWHC’s main goal is to diagnose and monitor for disease, and will accept specimens, but noted songbirds might die from many different things, so a single bird when other birds in the area appear healthy might not be useful.
“... but if multiple are sick or dying in the area then any dead ones can be very helpful for us to figure out what is happening in the area,” he said.
Patterson said she reached out to the Times because she’s hoping that readers who might have recognized a bird affected by trichomonosis will take their feeders down until the colder months begin.
“We need to do everything we can,” she said. “They’re an indicator species on how our environment is doing. If the birds aren’t doing well, more creatures aren’t doing well.”
Additional information can be found at www.cwhc-rcsf.ca. Readers who suspect they might have ill or infected birds at their feeders can contact Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary at 705-286-1133 or the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at 1-866-673-4781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.