Why Do American Goldfinches Get Avian Conjunctivitis?
As an avid, but amateur, bird-watcher, there is always a thrill when the opportunity to add a great picture to our album arises. This is especially true since I work hard feeding the birds and doing whatever I can to attract them so my husband can take the picture. However, not every picture can make the cut. This was the case with a seemingly perfect picture of a male and female American Goldfinch.
An Almost Perfect Picture
“Hey, honey, look at this,” said my husband. It was one of the bird photos from our backyard that showed a male and female American Goldfinch feeding off our thistle sack. This was the perfect opportunity to include a picture of our state bird in our album. But it looked like the bright yellow male was missing an eye!
The excitement over a new picture to upload to our website waned. The paler female looked fine, but her mate was not so picture-perfect. What was wrong with this American Goldfinch? We posted our pictures to an online discussion board: WhatBird.com. Our first response came back concerning the goldfinch: “Your bird has conjunctivitis. The poor thing will probably die soon.”
What Is Avian Conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis, known as avian conjunctivitis and Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis for birds, is a disease caused by a parasitic bacterium. Our male goldfinch had the typical symptoms of red, swollen, watery or crusty eyes. As the disease progresses, the eye(s) can swell shut or crust over, leaving the bird blind. Infected birds have trouble feeding because they cannot see.
But, the symptoms seemed odd, considering conjunctivitis is a respiratory infection. Clearly, the bird was breathing. And, the disease is commonly found in House Finches, not American Goldfinches. I had to look up more information about the disease.
The History of the Disease
The spread of avian conjunctivitis was first noticed in 1994 when House Finches—with the symptoms listed above—were seen at feeders in the Washington, D.C. area. Until the 1940s, House Finches were only found in western North America and Mexico. In 1941, the birds were sold illegally in a New York pet store as “Hollywood Finches.” Knowing that the authorities were coming to inspect his shop, the Brooklyn shop owner set the birds free.
The birds bred successfully in the wild. But, with so few birds to populate the species in the east, the birds became highly inbred. And inbred species tend to become susceptible to more health and physical problems.
Why Was an American Goldfinch Infected?
So why was a male American Goldfinch in a central New Jersey backyard infected? American Goldfinches are part of the same family as House Finches, Fringillidae. Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks have been known to contract conjunctivitis. This is no surprise since they are also in the same family, but it is extremely rare. But studies do show an increase in the amount of infected songbirds.
Because we get many species of birds in our backyard, I did not want the other birds to become infected. All I could think about was the faithful female goldfinch in our picture becoming as sick as her mate. I needed to know what to do.
Ways to Help
- The best defense against infection is to disinfect. Cleaning feeders with one (1) part bleach to nine (9) parts water will sanitize the feeders. Let them dry before re-hanging in the yard.
- Another way to prevent the spread of infection is to rake under feeders to remove potentially contaminated seeds, shells, and bird droppings. Handling feeders after an infected bird has fed on it is not a problem, as this strain of the disease does not affect humans. Sometimes people are confused because humans do get a form of conjunctivitis, pink eye. However, avian conjunctivitis cannot be transmitted to humans.
- You can also be part of the bird-watching survey for Cornell University and report infected birds.
1. Link to House Finch Disease Survey run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
2. Mycoplasmal Conjunctivitis Fact Sheet by Ohio Department of Natural Resources:
3. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “House Finch.” All About Birds. Cornell University, 2011.
Cite This Article:
Crosby, Stephanie Bradberry. American Goldfinches: Avian Conjunctivitis. HubPages, 2011. Web. Today’s date.
Crosby, S. B. (2016). American goldfinches: Avian conjunctivitis. Retrieved from http://www.hubpages.com/hub/American-Goldfinches-Avian-Conjunctivitis.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Am I making the spread and transmission of conjunctivitis worse by keeping backyard feeders?
Yes and no. It is important to track if you notice any infected birds. If you notice them it would be a good idea to routinely disinfect your feeders.Helpful 2
My goldfinch has an eye disease. Will it die?
Without treatment, your goldfinch will die because it will have trouble seeing and finding food.Helpful 1
© 2011 Stephanie Bradberry