1. Many host–pathogen systems show regular seasonal oscillations.
2. Seasonal variation in mycoplasmal conjunctivitis prevalence in house finches is an example of such oscillations.
3. An annual pulse of Mycoplasma gallisepticum-naïve juveniles increasing the number of susceptibles, seasonal changes in flocking behaviour increasing transmission rate and a gradual loss of resistance to reinfection with time are sufficient to model the observed seasonal variation in disease prevalence. Nevertheless, experiments are needed to test the underlying mechanisms.
4. We carried out an 18-month experiment with small groups of birds in large aviaries to test two hypotheses.
5. To test the first hypothesis that an influx of naïve juveniles in a group of recovered adults is sufficient to cause an outbreak, we added eight juveniles to a group of 11 adults that had recovered from an earlier infection. In all, three replicates juveniles became infected, but only after some of the adults relapsed.
6. To test the second hypothesis that reintroduction of M. gallisepticum into a multiage group of previously exposed but fully recovered house finches causes a new outbreak, we inoculated two birds in each group in March of the 2nd year. Contrary to what happens in the wild at that time disease prevalence increased rapidly after reintroduction of M. gallisepticum.
7. We conclude that asymptomatic, recovered adults can initiate an epidemic and transmit M. gallisepticum to naïve house finches and that the reintroduction of M. gallisepticum is sufficient to cause a new outbreak, even at a time of the year when mycoplasmal conjunctivitis is low in free-living birds. Date, as such, seems to be less important to explain seasonal variation in conjunctivitis than the presence of naïve juveniles or the introduction on M. gallisepticum.
8. Seasonality in outbreaks is most likely tightly linked to seasonal variation in bird movements and behaviour.