In the movie Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character received a virus from a chef she came in contact with in Macau.


Photo: Warner Bros. Industries

The chef got the virus from the carcass of a pig which got the virus from a chunk of banana an infected bat had dropped into the pig’s pen.

The screenplay was the brainchild of writer Scott Z. Burns, who may or may not have read Cook’s novel of the same name, although the two stories are world’s apart. That’s not important, what is important is that the movie demonstrated the ability of viruses to jump between species. A little thing called species-jumping. You might remember from high school biology that animals of one species can’t breed with animals of another species. That’s what makes them, well, species! And vectors, such as viruses and bacteria, love jumping between species.

Where am I going with this? No, I haven’t decided to start a career as a virologist, although, back in the day, I did look great in a lab coat.


In my dreams.

The reason I’m discussing the topic of species-jumping is I’m faced with a potential outbreak (Now, that was a fun movie!). The annoying creature I’m dealing with is a bacterium called Mycoplasma gallisepticum, and it’s jumping all over the place.

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Mycoplasma gallisepticum, super, duper enlarged.

This little devil originally worked its damage on domestic birds such as chickens and turkeys, giving them all sorts of nasty respiratory problems like cloudy eyes, conjunctivitis, swollen sinuses, sticky nasal mucous, and labored breathing. First described in the early 1900’s, MG, as it’s affectionately called, had extracted a serious toll on the poultry industry, but, for many years it stayed species specific. Unfortunately, MG mutated and has jumped to a whole new group of species: the taxonomic class called Passerines.

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According to Cornell Lab’s Feeder Watch (

In the winter of 1994, Project FeederWatch participants in the Washington, D.C., area began reporting that House Finches at their feeders had swollen, red, crusty eyes. Lab tests revealed that the birds had Mycoplasma gallisepticum, a parasitic bacterium previously known to infect poultry. 

From Washington, D.C., let’s give a warm Concord River welcome to (drum roll, please) Mycoplasma gallisepticum.  

I first noticed this little lady at the end of July.

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My Patient Zero: a female House Finch with the first signs of Avian Conjunctivitis.

A few days later, this guy developed conjunctivitis too.

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My infected American Goldfinch.

Species-jumping at its finest!

How does the infection spread, you ask with a breathlessness that is nothing short of amazing? Watch and learn:

My bird feeder is like a Roman bath; a veritable hot bed of disease.

It’s the style of feeder that seems to enhance the spread of the infection. Feeders with large ports seem to enhance the spread of the disease. To feed, the infected bird has to poke its head into the seed hole and the bird’s eyes scrape against the edges of the opening, thus leaving a tiny trace of nastiness for the next bird. Think of it like this: you meet someone who has conjunctivitis, who has just rubbed her eye, and then you shake hands. Yuck!

Avian Conjunctivitis doesn’t kill, although new studies indicate it is getting more virulent. It can result in blindness, however, which prevents the bird from finding food, ultimately resulting in starvation. Also, if the bird becomes blind, there’s the risk of flying into solid objects like trees and windows, another thing that has a negative effect on the bird’s overall health.

Many birds overcome the disease, as some research suggests. If the birds can find food, they stand a chance of their immune system defeating the infection, and becoming healthy again. My little finch still manages to find the seed, despite being visually impaired.

What can you do to help? If you see a bird at your feeder with eyes issues, don’t try to catch it. No, the condition can’t be passed to humans or other mammals, but you might risk injuring the bird more than it already is. Take down your feeder, and dispose of the seed. Soak the feeder in a 10% bleach solution for about 20 minutes, rinse it really well, and let it dry completely before using it again. I recommend a drying time of 48 hours. If you have more than one feeder, disinfect them all, disposing of ALL the seed.


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“You don’t eat off of dirty dishes so don’t make me eat from a dirty feeder.”

Following good bird feeding practices will help reduce the spread of the disease and, according to Cornell Labs, might stop infections from starting. Here are their guidelines:

  1. Space your feeders widely to discourage crowding.
  2. Clean your feeders on a regular basis (weekly) with a 10% bleach solution (1 part bleach and 9 parts water).
  3. Remove any build-ups of dirt around the food openings. Allow your feeders to dry completely before rehanging them. It’s a good idea to have a back-up feeder to use while one is drying.
  4. Rake the area underneath your feeder to remove droppings and old, moldy seed.
  5. If you see one or two diseased birds, take your feeder down immediately and clean it with a 10% bleach solution.

You can opt to stop feeding the birds until the diseased bird has moved on, but you’ll just drive the infected bird to a new location which will increase the chance of spreading the bacteria. Be vigilant about cleaning your feeders during an outbreak. Disinfect your feeders with every seed change. Follow these guidelines established by Wild Birds Unlimited.

  • Always store your bird seed in a cool and dry location outside of your home.
  • Store bird seed in rodent- and insect-proof containers.
  • Never mix old seed with new seed.
  • During periods of warm weather, store only the amount of seed that your birds can consume over a two-week period.
  • During the cooler winter weather, store only the amount of seed your birds can consume over a four-week period.
  • Keep your bird feeders filled with a one- or two-day supply of seed to ensure it is eaten quickly and stays fresh.
  • Discard moldy, rancid or foul-smelling seed, because it can be a health hazard to birds.

My added recommendations are to remove perches from your feeders to discourage lingering lunches and dinners.

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Also, avoid communal feeders.

Screen feeders reduce the issues created by the large feeding holes. Soon, my feeders will be replaced by the style shown below. I’m just waiting for Amazon to deliver them

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I like this type because it also allows the spent seed shells to drop to the ground for easy sweeping up.

Now, this is what I want you to do. I want you to go on Netflix and rent Contagion, and while you’re there, rent Outbreak too, but disinfect your feeders first.

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And help the songbird population by contributing to ongoing research, join Feeder Watch at:

Blessed be :}





About tinthia

Wondering, searching, and wandering, I'm an earth witch with a desire to get it right in my lifetime. The flow of the river feeds my inner goddess and fuels my soul. Blessed be. :}
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2 Responses to Contagion

  1. priscilla rafuse says:

    thanks. i didnt know about this. i have chickens too. i havent noticed any funky birds with eye problems but it cant hurt to clean the feeders.

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