Watching birds feed is such a joy, but did you know deadly infections can occur and spread at feeders? We all know prevention is better than cure, so here’s how to help your birds stay healthy this winter.
In a previous post we talked about what to put on your feeder to attract birds to you. There are so many things you can leave out for birds that they love to eat, but one thing you need to bear in mind is that, just like in your own home, you do need to clean up after yourself. Birds aren’t known for their washing up skills, and the food they find out in the woods and fields tends to have its own system of keeping clean or reducing harm, either by insects and other tiny life forms feasting on detritus, or rain and wind washing and blowing unwanted food away, scattering potentially harmful waste over a wider area. Not so with our feeders; plastic, ceramic, metal or wooden feeders present their own challenges for a concentrated build-up of waste, and it is important to maintain these surfaces, not only for longer product life for you, but more importantly for the health of the birds that visit, and their communities beyond.
Birds aren’t known for their washing up skills.
There is scope, of course, for weather to assist you, but it would be a little slipshod to rely entirely on natural phenomena to replace your cleaning duties. We have heard some people claim they never clean their feeders and they haven’t seen any issues with birds getting ill, but unless you follow a specific bird throughout its lifetime in a minute by minute time frame, a Bird Big Brother, as it were, then that is quite a bold statement to make. These diseases often only take a day or two to set in, and chances are if a bird has caught something at your feeder, you won’t see it again. Anyway: just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
Some threats to birds exist as a result of human actions, and diseases from dirty bird feeders is one of several main killers of wild birds. We understand that disease is as much a part of the cycle of life as being healthy, and something comes to us all, but there is a huge difference between nature taking its course, and passively letting it tear through a population.
We don’t like thinking about our beaked besties getting sick either, so we’ll run through the four most common illnesses that birds can catch at your feeders. If we want to enjoy watching the birds, it is our responsibility to be watchful of them too.
The big four
This fungal infection thrives in wet or damp bird mixes, in the discarded seeds and seed cases under or on feeders, and nesting materials. The mould spores are inhaled into the bird’s lungs and airways causing bronchitis which leads to pneumonia, and the bird will eventually die from breathing difficulties and weakness. Birds can usually be seen struggling with breathing with their beaks open and generally not moving much.
This is a virus that affects around 60 different wild bird species. The majority of birds that get this will recover albeit after some extreme discomfort, but as with all things, some will die. This disease manifests itself as lesions that grow on unfeathered parts of the body, so feet and legs, making it hard to perch, but the real danger is when they grow around the eyes, preventing sight, and on the beak and in the mouth. Locating food and feeding becomes impossible and the bird will eventually starve. Avian pox is usually passed on at feeders, or from mosquitoes, lice and ticks that bite infected birds. Infected birds will move around normally, but the warty growths are usually visible and can be pink, red, yellow or grey. It is a resistant virus and can survive on contaminated surfaces for a number of days, and can even survive in the scabs of recovered birds for months.
Trichomoniasis or Canker
Trichomonads are parasites that affect many bird species, as well as mammals, including us. Some strains are known to infect finches, pigeons and doves who can then pass the organism on to predators such as falcons. Like avian pox, this parasite produces sores in the mouth eventually making it impossible to eat. But the trichomonads are present in the mouth from day one as the sores develop, and when a bird begins to struggle with eating, the dropped food is now also home to the parasite, which is then passed on to the next bird who picks the food up.
The most common bird-feeder disease, the Salmonella bacteria forms abscesses in throat crops and the oesophagus. Symptoms are difficult to detect but birds will become lethargic and react slowly to danger or disturbance, sometimes staying close to or at feeders for long periods of time. The bacteria are passed in faecal droppings which then contaminate the food nearby on which other birds will then dine. Infected birds eventually become emaciated and die, but they usually continue to feed up until the end.
Symptoms are difficult to detect but birds will become lethargic and react slowly.
How to help
Aside from cleaning up waste there are other things you can do to help minimise the risk of disease. Steer clear of any manufactured feeders that have sharp edges or points on perches – small cuts or puncture wounds are excellent sites for bacteria or viruses to breed. If you make your own feeders, make sure all edges and any twigs or sticks you use are blunt.
Throw away any food that you have stored that smells damp or musty, likewise don’t buy any food from shops if you can see condensation inside the packaging. Clean out any dry food storage containers regularly and also wash and dry any filling scoops or funnels after use. Make sure your storage containers are airtight if you can.
If you have the space and means, spread food over more than one feeder. Crowding at feeders not only stresses birds out making them vulnerable to illness, it is also very easy for jostling birds to pass on mites, lice and ticks. Feather mites cause damage affecting flight and temperature control, and mites suck blood, leading to anaemia, as well as infesting nests, meaning some parents will abandon their young to avoid catching them too.
Also, clear away any mess on the ground beneath feeders. Using a shovel or rake, clear up any droppings and discarded food or shells. Not only can this attract rodents bringing their own diseases, ground-feeding birds will soon become ill.
Crowding at feeders stresses birds out making them vulnerable to illness.
But most important of all, clean those feeders. Using a warm or hot water solution of 10-parts water to 1-part bleach, completely immerse feeders for a couple of minutes and if you can, allow them to air dry. Remember, some of the infections like salmonella can affect us too, so always wear rubber gloves when cleaning up.
Cleaning feeders can be a little gross and time consuming, and sometimes people think they will frighten the birds into never coming back if they take the feeders in for a while, but don’t worry, they will come back, and even if they didn’t others would replace them. Birds are supremely opportunistic and will always seek out a food source if you provide it.
Aside from being highly susceptible to illness, birds are also extremely picky. You wouldn’t want to tarnish your reputation, and if they discover their once favourite restaurant has gone downhill, they may even vote with their wings and move on. To keep them keen, keep it clean.