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BirdWatch Ireland appeals to the public to record sick finches during annual Irish Garden Bird Survey

The free survey is open to everyone in Ireland who wishes to take part, and the number of participants continues to grow each year.
BirdWatch Ireland’s Irish Garden Bird Survey is entering its 31st year this December, and for the first time participants are being asked to record the numbers of sick birds seen in their gardens. Last year’s results showed that Greenfinches fell to their lowest ever numbers as a result of ‘finch trichomoniasis’ – a parasitic infection that results in the deaths of infected birds. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Greenfinches were recorded in around 90% of gardens each winter, but their numbers since have plummeted and fewer than 60% of gardens had Greenfinches last winter.


“The rapid decrease in Greenfinch numbers over the last 10 years has been extremely worrying, and last winter’s results suggest their decline hasn’t bottomed out yet,” said Brian Burke, who coordinates the survey for BirdWatch Ireland. “Thousands of people all over the country take part in the Irish Garden Bird Survey every winter, so we’re hoping to use the public’s help to get a better handle on where and when this infection is hitting birds over the winter. As well as noting down the numbers of different bird species using their gardens each week, we need participants to tell us about any sick birds they see too.


“We’re delighted to have The Ballymaloe Group on board once again as official sponsor of the Irish Garden Bird Survey again this year. Thanks to their generous support we’re able to dedicate more resources to tackling issues such as bird illness in a scientific way, which in turn allows us to do even more to protect and monitor Ireland’s beloved garden and countryside birds.”


Fern Allen of Ballmaloe said, “Ballymaloe are proud to support the BirdWatch Ireland survey. As one of Ireland’s leading food brands, Ballymaloe has a responsibility to ensure sustainability is at the core of everything we do. Our commitment to wetlands, rewilding and protection of natural habitats allows birds and other creatures to thrive in the East Cork countryside.”


It is important to note that the Trichomonas gallinae parasite poses no threat whatsoever to humans, nor indeed to any other mammals, including cats, dogs, horses, cattle and sheep. It is strictly a bird disease and has been recorded in pigeon and bird of prey populations for a long time. It is even thought to have been a problem for the dinosaurs, from which modern bird ultimately evolved. It ‘jumped’ to finches in Britain in 2007 and was first recorded in Ireland the following year. Since then it has caused huge declines in Greenfinches in many parts of northern Europe.


Brian Burke noted, “Finch species are the birds that are most likely to be affected by trichomoniasis. The symptoms that infected birds show include fluffed up feathers, difficulty swallowing food, sometimes with food stuck to their beaks, and an unusual reluctance to fly away when disturbed.
“Nobody could have predicted that this parasite would start to impact our finch populations, but thankfully we had the Irish Garden Bird Survey in place before it happened, so we have the data to show just exactly how hard some species have been hit. We get a great response to the survey every winter, and this time around people can give added value to their records by letting us know about any sick birds they see.


“Other finch species can be affected, most notably Chaffinches and Goldfinches, but their populations haven’t been impacted to the same degree. Chaffinch numbers did dip when the parasite first appeared, but their numbers have recovered,” according to Brian Burke. “Goldfinches have been doing well and trichomoniasis has done little to slow their growth. They’ve gone from being recorded in under 15% of gardens in the mid-1990’s to over 80% of gardens in recent years.”


Notes
1.    The survey is open to everyone and runs from 02 December 2019 to the end of February 2020.
2.    For full details see www.birdwatchireland.ie and follow BirdWatch Ireland on Facebook and Twitter.
3.    Media contact: Brian Burke, Irish Garden Bird Survey Coordinator at BirdWatch Ireland (086 074 2739, bburke@birdwatchireland.ie)
4.    To obtain photographs for publication in connection with this story, please email Brian Burke at bburke@birdwatchireland.ie 

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