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Our birds are fighting epidemics too

Outdoor Living

SKY SPECTACLE A murmuration of thousands of starlings over the reed beds of Lough Carra. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

As they always do, the unruly mob that are goldfinches have taken control of the peanut feeders. I never knew birds as quarrelsome; a flock of goldfinches is called a charm, but there is nothing especially charming about the greedy things at this time of year. Perhaps in spring, with the sun bringing out the best of their dazzling plumage and a southerly breeze to amplify their song, then they might make a charm indeed, but by then the males, which are the only sex to properly sing, will be strongly territorial and solitary.
Last autumn our few greenfinches, which appear to be the only songbird to put manners on their goldfinch cousins, dwindled in number and eventually disappeared. The culprit was something called Trichonomiasis, a tiny parasite that has been affecting certain species of birds for many years. In the early 2000s pigeons were the worst afflicted; now it is the finch family.
We always had greenfinches nesting in the conifers at the edge of the garden, and I think this last summer was the first without them. Nor is it only here, but many I have asked have said the same: There are none to be seen.
Now, I am happy to relate, two of them are back. I have them here, keeping the goldfinches at bay while filling their own crops with peanuts.
I wonder where they came from? The onset of winter brings many birds west. Some travel from other parts of this country, while others come from much further afield – Europe, Scandinavia, Greenland. There are no travel restrictions in place for these, nor any form of social distancing. Disease can spread quickly, even across continents.
Trichonomiasis is an ever-present danger for many different birds. If this weren’t enough, last week we had a highly contagious strain of Bird flu, H5N8, confirmed in Ireland. As always, these things start slowly and move fast. On October 20 last, tests on a dead mute swan in the Netherlands returned positive for Avian flu. Six days later authorities found a wigeon, a species of duck, that had succumbed to the same disease. Last week a number of dead birds in the UK also tested positive, and then came a report from County Limerick and another from Northern Ireland.
Swans and ducks are long distance migrants, many of which come here for the winter. The winter and spring of 2016/17 saw outbreaks of H5N8 in many parts of Europe, including here. While it is comforting to know that this highly virulent disease presents no risk to our own physical health, it may decimate the poultry industry and might also impact greatly on our wild bird population, especially where these congregate in large numbers.
I was at Moorehall, on the shores of Lough Carra, to watch the impressive murmuration of starlings that takes place each evening. An ecologist friend estimates there to be somewhere in the region of 30,000 birds sharing a few square meters of reed bed as their nightly roost. As temperatures fall over the coming weeks, the number of birds will increase as European migrants join up with the resident flock. With starling numbers already under pressure in much of their range, an outbreak of Bird flu could be devastating.
That evening we were entertained by the antics of a sparrowhawk, which made repeated stoops into the huge starling flock. The hawk would climb above its intended prey and dive at a steep angle, driving itself forward and down with powerful wings. The starlings parted before that predator like the waters of the Red Sea did before Moses, allowing the larger bird free passage. Again and again the hawk attempted to snatch one of the flock, yet they were able to evade capture with ease, wheeling away in a thick and convoluting throng.
I counted eight stoops, after which the hawk tired and took itself away, those cruel claws empty, to a broken tree where it stopped to rest and glare. He won’t give up easily. In fact we can expect him to perfect his technique until he takes he supper with aplomb.
Any sick, dying or dead birds we find should not be handled. Birdwatch Ireland would like to hear about them, but other than keep tabs on what is happening there is nothing we can do, either for Trichonomiasis, which is already widespread, or for H5N8, which we hope will not be.