An epidemic of conjunctivitis among house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) caused by Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG) bacterial infections was first described in 1994. The disease exhibits high primary host specificity, but has been isolated from a limited number of secondary avian hosts at various times and locations. We used records from the House Finch Disease Survey, a continent-wide, volunteer monitoring project, to document the host range of conjunctivitis in birds at feeding stations and to investigate how disease in house finches might influence the spread of conjunctivitis to other hosts. Between 1994 and 1998, participants recorded 675 cases of conjunctivitis in 31 species other than house finches in eastern North America. Seventy five % of these cases were observed among three species: American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis), purple finches (Carpodacus purpureus) and house sparrows (Passer domesticus). The proportion of sites with diseased wintering populations of the three species increased over the 4 yr study and coincided with range expansion of conjunctivitis in house finches. Sites with diseased house finches present were significantly more likely to report conjunctivitis in each of the three species during the same month. These observations are most consistent with transmission of an infectious agent (presumably MG) from house finches to these secondary hosts via spillover of localized epidemics, rather than sustained interspecific transmission.
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Vol. 37 • No. 1