One morning a few weeks ago, I stepped out our back door onto the patio, walked quietly up to the bird feeders, and very gently plucked a small House Finch from one of the perches. She offered no resistance, save for a surprised squawk and a feeble twitch in my hand—an attempt, no doubt, to escape, which might have succeeded had she been stronger. But this was a sick bird. Eyes crusted closed, the bird hadn’t seen me coming, and in her weakened condition she was barely able to struggle. This was a classic case of Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis—House Finch eye disease.
Holding her safely and securely in what’s known as a bander’s grip—back against my palm, hand cupped around her wings, tail, and feet, index and middle finger on either side of her neck with her head peeking out between them—I carried her into the house and placed her in a small carrier. To keep her quiet and relaxed, I draped a cover over it, ensuring that enough air flowed in to allow her to breathe easily. Then I called Judy Pasko, a wildlife rehabber I know in Cummington, and we were off.
An hour later I was on my way back home, the little finch in Judy’s care. For me, it was all over but the waiting. Judy would do everything she could, but the bird’s condition wasn’t good: the disease was advanced, and she was very weak. The next 24 hours were critical. If she made it through a full day of treatment, she’d have a decent chance to survive.
First spotted by Project FeederWatch participants in the Washington, D.C. area early in 1994, House Finch eye disease spread like wildfire all along the Eastern Seaboard. Co-sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, FeederWatch is a citizen science project that gets ordinary people involved in monitoring the birds that visit their yards and reporting what they see. Sightings are collected in a central database, which scientists and conservationists can use to look at population trends, migration timing, appearance of specific species… if there’s a question they can ask, this massive data set—submitted by thousands of regular people who just love birds—can help them get at an answer. In February of 1994, FeederWatchers began reporting House Finches with red, crusty, swollen eyes. But what was it? Where did it come from? And how did it spread?
The first two were easy to answer: Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis is an illness caused by the parasitic bacterium Mycoplasma gallisepticum, which jumped species from infected poultry. The third was a little harder; two decades after its emergence in House Finches, the jury’s still out. Most likely, the pathogen passes from one bird to another through contact with infected droppings or the hallmark eye secretions, but no one’s entirely sure. What’s certain is that it does spread, and easily: in addition to House Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, American Goldfinches, and Purple Finches have all succumbed to it. And in 2002, the disease crossed the Rockies and began racing through the western U.S., infecting House Finches all the way to the Pacific Coast. My little bird was in good company.
And she was also in good hands. Judy called the next day with an update: the finch was still with us, and seemed a little stronger after her first course of medicine. She wasn’t out of the woods yet, but things were looking up. Now she faced a few weeks of treatment, rest, and acclimation to the cooler weather heralding winter’s approach. If all went well, in about three weeks she’d be ready to be released. I’m not usually given to prayer, but I asked for Mother Nature’s intercession, and hoped that She might convey this little bird back to health.
Sometimes prayers are answered. This morning, Judy drove the finch back home. The bird she released in our yard was feisty, energetic, and possessed of all the vitality that this disease had drained from her—the fire of life burning deep and strong within her feathered breast. She flew to the top of the tallest tree, and was immediately joined by another of her kin. The two finches sat in each other’s company, perhaps enjoying their reunion, and then she took flight again, descending into the yard. She landed in a nearby Ash and, head tilted in our direction, regarded us—we two who had helped her back to life. I looked into her eye, and the full force of connection hit me—a freight train carried on gossamer wings. Weeks before, I had reached out my hand and delivered her into the hands of another who would save her. And here she was, healthy, beautiful, and free.
It doesn’t always end this way. There have been others who’ve been less fortunate, who we’ve tried to help and who were already too far gone. But as Judy said this morning, you do what you can, even if doesn’t change the outcome. If nothing else, at least they knew safety, comfort, and love before they passed.
My family and I took a trip to California this past April, and on a beach in Monterey we found a female Surf Scoter in clear distress. We wrapped her in my jacket and brought her an hour away to a wildlife rescue center—gaunt, bedraggled, and barely holding on. She died during the night. Why had we found her, my son wondered, if we couldn’t save her? In the end, what good did we do?
Sometimes, it seems pointless. If the bird’s going to die anyway, why bother? The answer is simple: because we can. Because we should. Because all life has equal value, and must be treated with respect, with reverence, and with love. And because, regardless of outcome, there’s nobility in the attempt.
And once in a while, in the face of uncertainty and through great care, a life on the edge comes back to us. In that moment, hope is reborn, life is proven stronger than death, and we are given the gift of connection to all that is, was, and will ever be. And for a time, at least, the world is good.
To learn more about Judy Pasko and to support her work, you can check out her website, Cummington Wildlife Inc.
You can get more info about House Finch eye disease through the Project FeederWatch website here
… and here…
… the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website here
… and here.
And you can learn more about Project FeederWatch here.