Patient of the Week: House Finch Can See Clearly Now the Conjunctivitis is Gone

By: Ashley Lema, Wildlife Rehabilitator

On January 27, we received this House Finch from a good Samaritan that lives in Beaverton. They found the little bird on the ground outside their home. The finch’s eyes were obviously both injured, and the bird was easily caught by the good Samaritan, which is never a good sign for an adult wild animal.

Once here at our Wildlife Care Center, our staff took a closer look at the finch’s eyes, and diagnosed the bird with mycoplasma conjunctivitis. House Finches are unfortunately common victims of this bacterial eye disease, but other birds aren’t immune. 

House Finch on natural branch in Wildlife Care Center enclosure.
The House Finch standing on a natural perch in an indoor mesh enclosure.

The infection causes red, swollen, runny, or crusty eyes. In extreme cases, the eyes may become swollen shut or crusted over–causing the bird to become blind. The infection can cause discomfort and distress, and birds will frequently scratch and wipe their eyes with their feet, or against branches or feeders for some relief. Birds in this condition have trouble foraging for food, and often take refuge under or near a feeder/food source that allows them to conserve energy. These sick birds usually look fluffed and weak, and many no longer have the energy to fly at all, spending the day alone pecking at the ground in search of food. And while we definitely don’t want to see that single finch suffer, we also must remember that our bird feeders become a transmission site for this disease. While some infected birds will recover, most die either from starvation, exposure, or predation–all as a result of not being able to see.

Luckily, this finch was rescued before it was too late. The finch spent a few weeks inside our hospital ward receiving supportive care through eye drops and a course of antibiotics. The finch’s severely infected eyes responded well to treatment, and the bird is now in an outdoor songbird cage–a final step in it’s recovery. We will return them back to their territory in Beaverton once they are ready for release!

House Finches are small-bodied birds with fairly large conical beaks. They have long tails compared to their wings, and the tail also has a shallow notch in it. Adult males can have orange to red hues, while the females and immature males have no red, and are plain brown/grayish overall with thick blurry streaks and an indistinctly marked face. The males’ brightly colored feathers help him find a mate, and while that may sound superficial, the color of the males’ plumage is actually a sign of what food they have been eating. The more vivid the color, the more likely that he’ll be good at finding food for their young! This is an important quality to a mama bird. 

House Finches are very social birds, with fairly abundant populations in Oregon. They frequent city parks, agricultural areas, backyards, urban centers, farms, and forest edges across the continent. These finches congregate and move together in large foraging flocks, and are rarely seen alone outside of the breeding season. These flocks may be different sizes and contain multiple species of birds–especially in winter, flock numbers can go from a normal ~50 birds to as large as several hundred! This technique for foraging comes with both benefits (protection, mate selection, warmth) and negatives (competition, disease) for the birds that live this way. They forage at feeders, on the ground, or in trees and shrubs for seeds, buds, and berries. Almost all of their diet is vegetable matter!

The House Finch perched on a branch in a large outdoor enclosure.

How to Help

  • If you’re on the West coast, you may already be aware of the salmonella outbreak that we’ve been experiencing this winter with Pine Siskins (another finch species.) Conjunctivitis is yet another disease that can be easily spread through our bird feeders. You can help reduce the spread of the disease by regularly disinfecting your bird feeders. It is important to clean and bleach them at least once a week, but ideally daily, (clean with soap and water, rinse, soak or spray with 10% bleach solution, rinse after that sits for 10 minutes). We also recommend only feeding limited amounts of seed–just enough for the day. Finally we also recommend steering clear of platform feeders, at least during high-risk periods, like winter, because birds stand on them and tend to defecate where the food is, increasing the chances of spread. You should also clean any debris and bird droppings around and under feeders.
  • If you see an ill bird, and are able to get close enough to catch it, the best thing you can do is contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not offer food or water.
  • Remember that the very best way to support birds in our yards and neighborhoods is with native plants and leaving leaf litter alone because natural foraging behavior doesn’t create the same high disease transmission risk that bird feeders do. If you’re in the Portland metro area, you can learn more by joining the Backyard Habitat Certification Program!

 

Here at Portland Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center, we accept new patients from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day. You can also leave a message on our Wildlife Hotline at (503) 292-0304 or email wildlife@audubonportland.org and one of our solutions counselors will get back to you and provide advice for your specific situation. 

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Unfortunately due to COVID-19 we had to operate our Wildlife Care Center this past year with about 20% of our normal staffing and with about a 25% increase in our annual patient admissions. We were left with the difficult but necessary decision to discontinue providing follow-up updates on patients brought into our center so that we could focus on the daily care of the animals. And while we simply cannot write a story about each animal, our goal for this fresh and bright new year is to show you what we can: in the form of a weekly patient update! Check in every Thursday for our “Patient of the Week”; with information on the species, the circumstances that brought the animal in, and preventative advice so you can be a better steward for our wildlife!

If you’d like to contribute to the Wildlife Care Center, please consider making a donation here. Your work helps us to save lives.