Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Requiem for a Greenfinch

A couple of evenings ago, as Marty and I were taking advantage of the fine weather to share a barbeque with our good neighbour Geoff on the patio, a Greenfinch came to perch on the pergola not 8 feet away from us. This normally shy bird had no fear of us and stayed there for several minutes before disappearing into the bushes. ‘What a bold bird!’, I exclaimed.

The next evening, as we were again preparing to light the barbeque, a sad sight greeted us. There on the patio lay a dead Greenfinch, the same bird I feel certain, a male judging by the bright yellow on its wings and tail. It appeared to be quite uninjured, so could not have been killed by a predator. So why was it dead?

The dead Greenfinch on our patio
There are several possibilities - heat stroke or dehydration come to mind. But most likely I think is a nasty parasitic infection which has been causing mass die-offs of finches in recent years – Trichomoniasis, caused by the single-celled Trichomonas gallinae parasite. The Summer 2018 issue of ‘Wings’, the Birdwatch Ireland magazine has a most informative article about it, from which I quote:
‘The parasite is transmitted between finches via their saliva at shared food and water sources, when feeding chicks or when feeding their mate during courtship. The parasite colonises the back of the throat in an infected bird, progressively narrowing the digestive tract and making it increasingly difficult for it to swallow food or water; this eventually results in starvation.
‘The Irish breeding Greenfinch population is now half of what it was 12 years ago, before the impact of Trichomoniasis’.

‘Wings’ also gives advice on how garden hygiene can limit the spread of the disease:
‘The best thing to do is to remove all feeders and water baths from the garden and clean them in a mild bleach solution. The Trichomonas parasite doesn’t survive well outside the host, particularly in dry conditions, so leave your feeders and water dishes to air-dry after cleaning. We recommend that you hold off from feeding birds in your garden for at least two weeks afterwards. This will encourage them to seek food elsewhere and give the healthy birds a chance to separate from any infected individuals.’ 

The winter before last, I had noticed a near absence of the usual Greenfinches at the feeders Marty keeps so well stocked. I wondered why, but last winter they seemed to be back up to normal levels. It is disturbing to think that the disease has returned. What a horrid way for any creature to die!

Greenfinches are not so very different from you or I – we are all mortal, and death will come to us all eventually. We too are liable to epidemic plagues. Just 100 years ago the ‘Spanish Flu’ influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide, more than died in the Great War. Now, with better global communications and climate change, new human plagues such as Ebola and Zika are emerging all the time alongside old ones such as influenza, cholera and typhus. Such diseases are part of the motor that drives evolution to create the diversity of life we see around us.

I am sure that our God cares for Greenfinches just as he cares for us, and all his creatures. Jesus reassures us, saying
‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:29-31)

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