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Why Do American Goldfinches Get Avian Conjunctivitis?

Stephanie Bradberry is an educator herbalist, naturopath, and energy healer. She loves all things natural and the beauty of nature.

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 American Goldfinch infected with conjunctivitis.

An American Goldfinch infected with conjunctivitis.

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.

Male American Goldfinch

Male American Goldfinch

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.

Female American Goldfinch

Female American Goldfinch

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.

Great Sources

1. Link to House Finch Disease Survey run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/hofi/hofifaqs.html

2. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “House Finch.” All About Birds. Cornell University, 2011.

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/house_finch/lifehistory

Cite This Article:

MLA

Crosby, Stephanie Bradberry. American Goldfinches: Avian Conjunctivitis. HubPages, 2011. Web. Today’s date.

APA

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

Question: My goldfinch has an eye disease. Will it die?

Answer: Without treatment, your goldfinch will die because it will have trouble seeing and finding food.

Question: Am I making the spread and transmission of conjunctivitis worse by keeping backyard feeders?

Answer: 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.

© 2011 Stephanie Bradberry

Comments

John Bryans on March 06, 2017:

Thanks for writing about this, Stephanie. We are saddened to see several of our South Jersey goldfinches affected this year, after seeing just one in 2016.

Lindaflee on February 12, 2017:

I was somewhat surprised to see the shot of an American Goldfinch with conjuctivitis in this article. It's my shot, taken on March 17, 2008 at one of my backyard feeders, and I did not receive a request for permission to use this shot! Several years ago, I allowed the Audubon Society of California to use it, but I believe that's the only time I allowed it.

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on February 24, 2015:

Hi Coolgurl,

I did not know there were centers like this in NJ that would help rehabilitate a bird with conjunctivitis. This is awesome news to me.

Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!

Coolgurl on February 21, 2015:

Thank you for your article. I am in South Jersey and found a female goldfinch with Conjunctivitis. I had no idea what was wrong with it. A wildlife rehabilitate is caring for it and administering oral antibiotics hoping it will cure it.

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on January 27, 2015:

Hi poetryman6969,

Thanks. We all have our strengths. For all else, find someone else who is. But with time and patience we can often learn the skills of others :)

poetryman6969 on January 27, 2015:

Some lovely birds. I am not too good at taking care of animals but I am glad someone is!

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on September 23, 2012:

Hello Michael,

Thanks for stopping by. It is fun when you get to see birds fairly up close and personal. We only got to see a Baltimore oriole once in our yard. It was literally there one minute and gone the next. I read about them in my bird books and cut an orange in half and tacked it to the tree it was at to try to coax it back to our yard. No luck though. We have cardinals year round, and it is actually the mascot for a lot of schools in my area. They are most beautiful during mating season. Thanks for reading!

Michael Milec on September 22, 2012:

StephanieBCrosby, Hi .

Thanks for so many information Ina relatively short article.

[ That's my " professor" mastering the English language --your own words to me, formerly (Martus)]

Watching and feeding birds is least to say quite rewarding pastime.

Mine feeder hangs roughly 4 feet away from the pedio dor on 2nd floor deck area, giving me a pleasant view to be part of their fellowship in looking at each other.

American Goldfinches come to the feeder mostly when the sparrows and House finches leave.

One of the rare beauty the Baltimore Oriole comes seldom and stays only for a very short time ; Northern Cardinals are showmasters in demonstrating of elegant eating, they throw empty shelves of black sunflower seed away...

Observing their unique behavior , one has to notice each of them given specific features by the Creator to make world more interesting. One of that is a sense of "selfsufficiency " as they build their " houses" create their offspring , take care of them: feed and educate them , bringing to maturity, thus the next season , the procedure would continue. ( Oh, what a lesson for humanity!)

It's a pleasure to read your pleasantly composed writing.

God bless you. ( Michael)

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on June 11, 2012:

Hello Movie Master. Thank you for the wonderful comments and feedback. I never heard of the condition either until we heard back from the discussion board. So far so good though, no more birds have shown up since then with the condition.

Movie Master from United Kingdom on June 11, 2012:

Hi Stephanie, a very nice article with interesting and useful information.

What beautiful birds - I had never heard of this condition before.

I enjoyed reading, thank you and voted up.

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on April 25, 2012:

Hi daisynicolas. My heart really did break when I learned the probably fate of the pair. Right now I am looking out my front window at the sock feeder and all the goldfinches and house finches eating. I keep watching to make sure there are no infected birds. Thanks for reading.

daisynicolas from Alaska on April 25, 2012:

Thanks for making us aware of this condition. Educational and clear to understand with a lot of empathy.

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on December 01, 2011:

Hello grandmapearl. Thanks for your response to my article. My heart really broke once I found out what the fate was going to be for this beautiful bird, and other finches. I also hope the recent findings from CLO are accurate.

Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on December 01, 2011:

Hi Stephanie! I have heard and read about this disease, which seems to have such horrible consequences for our beautiful finches. I think it originated with chickens. But I have also read that recently the problem seems to be lessening, according to the latest findings from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I'm hoping that this is truly the case. Thanks for such an informative look at this nasty problem. Voted Up, Useful and Interesting

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on May 23, 2011:

It is sad. Now every time I see a goldfinch I always wonder in the back of my mind that if I look closer will it be an infected bird.

Mrs. Menagerie from The Zoo on May 22, 2011:

Very interesting info regarding these beautiful little birds. I didn't know anything about them. I'm sorry for the poor little guy, so sad!

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on May 05, 2011:

Paradise7, thank you. I know, I felt really bad once I knew the end was near for such a lovely bird.

Stephanie Bradberry (author) from New Jersey on May 05, 2011:

ColibriPhoto, thanks so much. I cannot take all the credit for the photography. Usually I just yell for my husband to get the camera. I just make the birds happy so they will keep coming back.

Paradise7 from Upstate New York on May 05, 2011:

Good info on the finches. Poor thing!

ColibriPhoto from Quito, Ecuador on May 05, 2011:

Nice article with good information. It is one thing to like birds, it is another to care about them. When you care it is reflected in your photography and your life. Keep up the good work.