Hundreds of dead pigeons are ‘falling out of the sky’

Gavin Campbell and Gary McCamphill with the fish they caught at Cashel Trout Fishery.
Gavin Campbell and Gary McCamphill with the fish they caught at Cashel Trout Fishery.

A killer disease is taking a disastrous toll of wood pigeons in North Antrim.

At the time of writing the disease has not been definitively identified, but farmers and shooters have told me that in a three miles pigeon flightpath between Glenann and Glendun hundreds of dead pigeons can be found lying in the fields.

On Tuesday of this week I found a pile of pigeon feathers in Paddy McCurday’s field a couple of hundred yards from my home on the Clady Road near Cushendun and when I was walking home my neighbour John McAuley told me he had found a similar pile of feathers in a field behind his house.

I would say that the pigeon which came down in Paddy’s field was taken by a fox: I could tell by the saliva on the feathers and it would seem that the bird in John’s field was also taken by a fox.

Another regular hill walker told me that two miles to the North of Cushendun he had found two peregrine falcons lying dead among dead pigeons in a field close to Cushleake moor where the shooting rights are held by the National Trust. When he went back next day to collect the dead peregrines, they were gone – with fox again the prime suspect.

I first heard about the tragic loss of wood pigeons on New Year’s eve but nobody, except locals, seemed to be interested in the details.

I am long past the stage where I can walk up the steep hill to the flightpath but men who have been there since the start of the year tell me they have seen, not only dead pigeons lying around in profusion, but they have watched as pigeons, coming in to roost or feed on holly berries, could not hold on to the branches and fell to the ground to die a short while later.

They said they had watched as pigeons, coming in on their normal flightpath, just ‘fell out of the sky like flies.’ The man who first told me of the wildlife disaster said some of the dead or dying pigeons had a greenish substance on their beaks.

My granson Daniel said he had seen a wood pigeon staggering about on the road at Coskib near Cushendall in what looked like a drunken state; it was unable to fly away.

When I asked another person – not a shooter – if he would bring in some of the dead birds so that I could send them off for scientific examination, he said with a hint of malevolence:

“I’ll not be touching any dead birds; if the buzzards and falcons pick them up and pay the price I’ll not be shedding any tears. These raptors take a heavy toll of our own wildlife every year and we could do with a rest from them.”

I am indebted to www.wildlife –rescue.dot.org.uk and www.bto.org for information which might be helpful in determining the cause of the deaths. I have calls out to several other experts but at the time of writing I have not had the information I require.

The sources mentioned above say: “Alternatively known as frounce or canker, this ailment is caused by an organism called Trichomonas gallinae, a mobile single celled protozoan that lives in the sinuses, mouth and throat of birds and which, under certain conditions, can multiply out of control. It has become a well known garden disease after the noticeable effect it has had on greenfinches in recent years.

“Rescue centres tend to see it more in pigeons and doves, as well as the birds of prey that feed on birds, such as sparrowhawks, kestrels and tawny owls. It is most prevalent in warm, damp weather, particularly late summer/early autumn.

“Characteristic lesions in the mouth of a juvenile wood pigeon characterised by yellow/white lesions in the mouth and throat of the bird, a thick, mucoid saliva and swellings around the eyes, the organism will grow until eventually the bird cannot feed properly and dies of starvation or predation. The more advanced the disease is, the more difficult it is to treat.

“Other signs of the disease that would be noticeable to members of the public would be birds that have dirty looking beaks with patches of wet feathers around the beak area and swollen eyes. Any birds that have difficulty swallowing food are fluffed up, lethargic and slow to fly off will also need help. It should be noted that this is a disease of birds only and cannot be passed on to cats, dogs, rabbits or humans.

“It is believed that the increase in the spread of this disease in recent years is due partly to a lack of hygiene around bird feeding and watering stations. A bird with trichmoniasis drinking from a bird bath is likely to pass the disease on to others and so continue the spread of the disease.

“Disinfectants are all very well but the only definitive way to kill trichomonas gallinae is by desiccation, i.e. drying out. Leaving feeders and especially bird baths to dry out after washing them is vital. A recommended drying time is 48 hours or at the very least (when regularly cleaned, i.e. weekly) 24 hours.”

The above sources also mention Chlamydiosis which, they say is most commonly recognised as a disease of pets. They say affected birds may appear to have difficulty breathing and/or have discharge from their mouth, nose or eyes. Affected wild birds may also simply be found dead.

They say: “Chlamydia psittaci bacteria can persist in the environment for months in a resistant form. Transmission can occur through direct contact between infected birds, ingestion of infected secretions (faeces, ocular and respiratory secretions), and/ or inhalation of contaminated dust or aerosols.”