As a vet working on the Garden Wildlife Health project, I spend half my time doing post mortem examinations on wild animals that members of the public have reported from across Great Britain. This means I see some interesting and unusual cases, from frogs with candle wax skin lesions to hedgehogs with lungworm.
We rely on the public’s help to learn about the conditions that affect wildlife species, including garden birds, amphibians, reptiles and hedgehogs. We appeal for sightings of sick or dead wildlife via the Garden Wildlife Health website - photos can also be uploaded which often help us get a better understanding of the possible causes of an incident.
Autumnal peak in two important diseases of garden birds
Autumn is a busy time of year for us since there are certain diseases that peak during this season. Here’s a rundown of the cases we’ve been seeing recently, and how you can help to safeguard the health of the wildlife in your garden.
We’re receiving lots of reports from across Great Britain of finch trichomonosis, a disease caused by the parasite Trichomonas gallinae.
Finches with the disease may appear lethargic, have fluffed up plumage, and have difficulty swallowing. Finch trichomonosis can affect all our finch species but it is the greenfinch which has been the most adversely affected by the disease, and the British population of this species is still in decline as a result. The number of outbreaks we see typically peaks in the late summer to autumn months, which may be related to increased population density and mixing during the breeding season, coupled with the young birds which are vulnerable to infection contracting the disease. However, reports do occur throughout the year.
Another disease with an autumn peak is avian pox which is caused by avian poxvirus. This virus causes warty lesions to develop, most commonly on the head and legs of affected birds. We’ve known this disease to affect some British bird species for decades, including the house sparrow, dunnock, starling and woodpigeon, in which we consider the infection to be endemic or long-established. For these species, it is often only individual birds that are affected and the symptoms can be relatively mild.
A new strain of avian poxvirus that affects birds in the tit family, therefore known as Paridae pox, was first confirmed in south east England in 2006. This form of the disease is striking since it can cause severe, often very large, skin lesions to develop, and often affects multiple birds in outbreaks. We think that we see this disease in Great Britain as a result of the virus being introduced either from Scandinavia or western continental Europe, where avian pox has already been seen to affect tit species. Whilst many birds of this family are susceptible to avian pox, it is the great tit, one of our most common garden birds, which is most frequently affected. The disease has spread gradually up the country over the past few years and has now reached as far north as the border.
You can help to prevent diseases such as these by following optimal hygiene practices when feeding garden birds. Simple steps such as routine feeding table hygiene, rotating feeding sites and the provision of clean and fresh drinking water and food can help to safeguard the health of the birds that visit your garden.
At this time of year we receive reports from across Great Britain of juvenile hedgehogs that are found weak, thin and may be seen out during the day. This is the time of year when hedgehogs should be getting ready to go into their hibernation which occurs from November to mid-March. For hedgehogs to survive hibernation, they must have gained a sufficient weight and have adequate fat reserves.
Typically, it is juveniles from late litters that appear to be affected since they haven’t had long enough to build the necessary body weight needed to survive the winter. If you want to provide a little food to supplement their natural diet before hibernation, meat-based dog or cat food, unsalted chopped peanuts, and dried mealworms are all great options.
Providing refuge for garden wildlife
You can give hedgehogs a helping hand by providing them with the materials to make hedgehog homes in the garden: log piles, compost heaps and leaf piles can give them shelter for winter. It’s also a good idea to leave a hole in your fence so they can move between gardens when they need to.
The Hedgehog Street website, run by the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, is a great source of information on how to make your garden as hedgehog-friendly as possible throughout the year.
Autumn is a fairly quiet time for amphibians and reptiles who are preparing for becoming dormant over the winter. Our partners Froglife have lots of information on the website about how to create winter homes or ‘hibernacula’ for the amphibians and reptiles in your garden too.
Risks from bonfires
Whilst November is the time of year that many of us look forward to bonfire night, it is important to make sure that we avoid harm to wildlife in these celebrations. To prevent injuring any animals that may be hidden, be sure to build bonfires as close to the time of lighting as you can, and check carefully before lighting them.
So please remember, remember to think about our wildlife this autumn.
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