Critter Tales

Is your birdfeeder a super spreader?

Is your birdfeeder a super spreader?

By Buckmasters Online

Prevent bird diseases and save bird lives by frequently cleaning your feeders.

Photo: Clean nectar feeders each time you refill them to keep hummingbirds healthy.

This spring, take the time to clean your bird feeders to prevent the spread of avian diseases among your feathered friends. 

Karen Rowe, nongame migratory bird program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, says there’s an increase in birdwatchers reporting house finches, purple finches and goldfinches with a crusty infection around their eyes.

“The infection is from a disease called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, or finch conjunctivitis,” Rowe said. “It can cause the birds’ eyes to swell and have a residue that dries up into a crusty layer over the eye. It can lead to blindness, increased predation rates and eventually death.”

Is your birdfeeder a super spreader?Although finches are the primary birds associated with this disease, it has been reported in up to 30 other wild bird species in North America.

The COVID pandemic has reinforced knowledge that the spread of disease can be slowed by keeping things sanitary. This also applies to many wildlife diseases, including finch conjunctivitis.

No matter what season it is, if you feed birds, protect them by cleaning your feeders.

High populations of birds in feeders increase chances for disease to be transmitted. At least five known diseases can be transmitted among birds at feeders. Not only can these diseases be passed from bird to bird, but they also can be transmitted from the feeders infected birds have visited. 

Dr. Jenn Ballard, state wildlife veterinarian for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, says bacteria that causes conjunctivitis is spread from bird-to-bird through contact with feeders and other surfaces where infected birds have been.

Ballard says if a person spots a bird at their feeder that shows signs of disease, the best way to help is to remove the feeder for at least two weeks, disinfect it with a bleach-and-water solution and allow it to dry completely before setting it out again with fresh seed.

Wear rubber gloves when cleaning feeders and make sure to wash and disinfect all items coming in contact with the dirty feeder. Also, remove hulls, seeds and droppings from the area surrounding the feeder.

“It’s a good practice to keep your feeders clean whether you’ve spotted sick birds or not,” Ballard said. “When you feed wildlife, you are unnaturally concentrating animals, which can lead to problems unless precautions are taken.”

Climate plays a role, too. In the Southeast where winter and spring bring more chances for rain and wet weather, it is common for mold or bacteria to form on wet bird seed both in the bird feeder and on the ground.

Moldy bird seed can cause fatal avian diseases, and uncleaned mold in bird feeders can cause birds to become sick. Reduce the risk and clean bird feeders regularly.

The four diseases that most frequently affect birds that use feeders are salmonella, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis and avian pox. All of these diseases are transmitted from one bird to another at feeding stations, especially when overcrowding occurs.

Is your birdfeeder a super spreader?Here are the basics of keeping your bird feeders clean and disease free:

• CLEAN SEED FEEDERS THOROUGHLY AT LEAST ONCE A MONTH. Use one-part liquid chlorine bleach to nine-parts hot water. Allow the feeders to air dry completely, especially wooden feeders, before refilling with seeds. Nectar feeders need special care because of their design.

• CLEAN NECTAR FEEDERS EACH TIME THEY ARE REFILLED. Use four-parts hot water to one-part vinegar or nine-parts hot water to one-part bleach, and dedicate a small bottle brush to clean small holes. Visually inspect the feeder for black mold, and rinse with water at least three times and let it air dry completely before refilling.

• STORE FOOD IN COOL rodent- and waterproof containers. DISPOSE of food that is wet, smells musty, or appears moldy.

• INSPECT FEEDERS FOR SHARP EDGES. Even small injuries can enable bacteria and viruses to infect otherwise healthy birds.

• USE MULTIPLE FEEDERS over a large area to reduce crowding and disease transmission between sick and healthy birds. If uneaten food accumulates in or under feeders, use less food or switch to a seed more to the birds' liking.

• DO NOT WAIT UNTIL SICK OR DEAD BIRDS are seen before cleaning feeders. If this happens, stop feeding immediately, remove the dead bird by wearing rubber gloves and placing the bird in a plastic, leak-proof bag.

Dispose of the sealed bag and rubber gloves in a normal trash receptacle out of reach of pets or scavengers. Wash your hands immediately. Clean all feeders and the surrounding area following and wait at least two weeks before rehanging feeders.

Ballard advises choosing feeders without platforms or wide perches where droppings can accumulate and help spread bacteria. Wooden feeders, while pretty, can also increase the risk of disease transmission and are much more difficult to disinfect.

Karen Rowe explains that feeders are a supplement to the natural diet of Arkansas songbirds and removing feeders for two weeks will not cause the birds to go hungry.  In spring, birds begin feeding on insects as well as tree, shrub and flower buds. 

The nutrients in natural foods enable them to get in good body condition for the breeding season. Rowe says the ideal way to provide food for songbirds in your yard is to provide a wide variety of native trees and shrubs that provide fruits and berries at different times throughout the year.

Songbirds get the protein they and their young require from insects that are found on native plants.

– Resources: Mass Audubon, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

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