Participating in the joys of backyard bird feeding can be a wonderful activity but the last thing we want to do is create a situation that is unhealthy for the birds. Thus, it is important to understand the risks and some of the precautions we can take to help maintain a happy, healthy environment for our feathered friends.
The following information is excerpted from the Ornithology section of the Texas Master Naturalist Curriculum, written by Charles Jack Randel, III, Wildlife Research Technician TAES and Jennifer Pestovic, TCE with contributions from Dr. Nova J. Silvy, Professor, Texas A&M University.
“Birds that frequent backyard bird feeders may be susceptible to some diseases that are spread through shared food or conditions that encourage disease (damp, contaminated food or fecal droppings). Four common diseases are salmonellosis, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis, and avian pox.
Salmonellosis is seen more frequently than any other bird feeder disease. It is caused by a group of bacteria that can spread throughout the bird’s body causing abscesses that form on the lining of the esophagus as part of the infection process. The bacteria are passed from the infected bird through fecal droppings. This is a problem at bird feeders where droppings can easily contaminate food.
Trichomoniasis comes from a group of protozoan parasites that afflict pigeons and doves. The Mourning Dove is very susceptible. Trichomoniasis typically causes sores in the mouth and throat. Unable to swallow, the bird drops the contaminated food or water, leaving it for other birds to consume, thus spreading the disease.
Aspergillosis is a fungus that grows on damp feed and debris beneath the feeder. The bird inhales the fungal spores and the fungus spreads through the lungs and air sacs causing pneumonia and bronchitis.
Avian Pox is more noticeable than other diseases due to the wartlike growths on the featherless surfaces of a bird’s face, wings, legs, and feet. Direct contact with infected birds spreads the virus. Shed viruses are picked up by healthy birds from food or feeders, or by insects that mechanically carry the virus on their body.
Disease cannot be overlooked as a complication of backyard bird feeding. Sick birds are less alert and less active. They feed less and may cower on a feeder and be hesitant to fly. To reduce the risk of spreading disease at feeders it is important to provide adequate space around feeders, clean waste and prevent contamination by droppings, clean the feeders regularly and use fresh dry-stored food.”
Here are a few regular maintenance tips:
- Every few weeks – and more often in the summer or rainy periods, you should disinfect feeders by scrubbing with a weak bleach solution of ¼ cup of bleach to 2 gallons of warm water. Rinse and allow feeders to dry thoroughly before refilling.
- If discarded seed shells and bird droppings begin to build up under your feeder, scoop them up and dispose of them in a trash bin.
- If the ground under your feeder has a heavy build up or gets contaminated, you should consider moving the feeder to a different location for a while.
- Replenish feeders often with fresh, dry food. Do not overfill hoping that the food will last for a long time. Birds don’t like old stale leftovers any more than you do.
- Keep bird baths clean (see feeder disinfecting suggestions above) and replenish with fresh water every couple of days.
The easiest way to attract birds to your backyard in winter is to provide a reliable source of water. Migrating birds will drop by for a drink or a bath, and resident birds will discover it and become your regular visitors.
Birds need water for drinking and regular bathing, and in winter water often disappears. Freezing temperatures trap the available water, and the often cloudy days of winter keep it frozen for a surprising length of time. Parts of the country are especially dry in winter, and whereas plants can shut down, birds still need to drink and bathe.
Cleaned and preened feathers not only keep birds aerodynamically fit, they also help insulate the bird by trapping air, which their bodies heat for winter warmth.
Bird predators are also looking for water and food in winter, so help protect your birds. They take off and fly more slowly with wet feathers, so place your birdbath close to cover. And put it in a place that you can get to easily as well, since you will need to replenish the water more frequently in the cold, dry air of winter that accelerates evaporation. Plus you may find it disappears quickly because birds are waiting in line for your clean, fresh water!
Birds still like most moving water, then misting water, next dripping water, and then standing water. Basically, the closer your water looks to natural water, the more they like it. We can’t all be perfect, though, and any clean water in winter is a treasure. If you have frequent freezing spells, you might enjoy having a heater for your birdbath. If it only freezes occasionally, you can pour heated water in your birdbath, dump it out and refill with fresh water.
With your water source in place, settle in and watch the action!
Putting up a bird feeder is the easiest way to begin attracting birds to your yard. With so many types of feeders available and so many varieties of birds out there, the question often becomes “Which bird feeder should I choose?” The good news is that most birds are not as regional as you might think and many bird feeders work for numerous types of birds. The most important consideration is what type of food you wish to supply and how often you are available to clean and refill the feeder.
The choice of feeder depends to a great extent on the type of food being used. Suet cakes, for example, do not flow through hopper of tube type feeders and are best served in wire mesh cages. There are also specialized feeders available for feeding birds such as Orioles and Humming Birds who prefer to drink liquid nectar.
The choice for many backyard birding enthusiasts is to feed loose seed. Birdseed comes in numerous varieties of mixed preparations as well as specific seeds like thistle, chosen to attract particular songbirds. Most birding authorities recommend a blend including black oil sunflower seeds due to their high nutritional and fat content. In general, loose seed mixes can be used in a wide variety of platform, tube or hopper feeders and can supply food for most of your feathered visitors.
The following is a quick reference guide to some different types of feeders and the benefits of each.
Platform Feeders: These are the most basic form of feeders, usually a simple tray with raised edges to hold in the bird food. Some have mesh bottoms or removable screen trays to allow moisture to pass through so that food doesn’t get soggy. A canopy over the top will also help keep the food dry. Platforms are good choices for feeding larger birds or attracting flocks. They can be hung from poles or tree limbs or mounted very close to the ground.
Hopper Feeders: This common type of feeder can be used for just about any type of seed. They provide a storage system for seeds that automatically replenishes until the hopper is empty. Some models have an even flow seed distributor that rations the seeds. A large amount of seed can be stored in the hopper so that the feeder doesn’t need to be refilled so often. Plus the seed is protected from the elements until it is ready to be eaten. Hopper feeders are most commonly hung or mounted on a pole.
Tube Feeders: An extremely common type of bird feeder, available in a large variety of sizes and designs. Tube feeders usually consist of a plastic tube, perhaps enclosed in a wire cage. Some have trays to catch spilled seeds. Tube feeders are best for feeding small birds that can easily perch at the feeding portals. These feeders are easy to refill and they permit the birds to see the seeds easily. Some tube feeders are specifically designed to dispense thistle seed for finches, so when buying one, be sure to consider what seeds it can hold, how many birds it can feed at once, and if there is a good way to hang it or mount it on a post.
Suet Feeders: Most suet feeders are mesh or wire cages which hold commercially prepared suet cakes and balls. Suet attracts a wide variety of birds all year. However, some suet should only be used as a winter food because it can quickly turn rancid in warm weather. Hang suet feeders from a tree branch or beneath a seed feeder.
Hummingbird Feeders: There are specialized feeders designed to attract Hummingbirds, who drink a sugar water mixture from a liquid feeder. These Nectar Feeders come in two basic types: vacuum feeders, an inverted bottle that empties into a reservoir with feeding holes; and saucer feeders, a container with a cover that has holes through which hummingbirds can drink the liquid. Hummingbird feeders work best when placed near flowers, especially flowers with long tubular blossoms.
Squirrel Proof Feeders: Most birdfeeder owners consider squirrels to be an adversary that must be stopped. Squirrels love bird food and they can endanger the safety of your birds and their food supply. Squirrels can jump long distances, climb poles or wire hangers, and stretch their bodies in surprising ways to get into the bird food. If your birds are losing their food to the local squirrel population, you will want to check into the available variety of squirrel proof feeders. They offer features like break away perches, weight sensitive mechanisms to close feeding holes, and cages that squirrels can not penetrate. There are also a number of squirrel baffles on the market that can be installed above or below your bird feeders to make it more difficult for squirrels to gain access by climbing up poles or down hanging wires.
Tips for Bird Feeder Selection
- Look for feeders with drainage holes in the bottom of the hopper or seed tray. This allows rainwater to drain and helps keep seed from spoiling.
- Look for feeders with shallow plate-like seed trays that will catch seed and allow seed shells to blow away. Deep accumulations of seed and bird droppings can create a situation that is unhealthy for visiting birds.
- Choose tube feeders with metal ports to keep squirrels from chewing open the holes.
- Ceramic and metal feeders are less apt to be destroyed by squirrels.
- Seed trays allow larger birds to use tube feeders. If you want to discourage larger birds, use a feeder without a tray.
- If you are interested in attracting a broader variety of birds, it may be wise to install multiple feeders with differing food mixtures.
Attracting birds to your backyard can be as simple as hanging a feeder. If it contains anything resembling food that local birds like to eat, you can rest assured that some of them will find it and probably pass the word to a few of their friends.
If you want to establish a truly bird-friendly habitat, however, there are a few other basic elements you should consider. Birds, like most creatures, enjoy spending their time in environments that provide easy access to food, water, shelter and a safe place to raise their young.
There are a large variety of food and feeder types to choose from. Selecting the right ones for your backyard is largely dependent upon the birds you are trying to attract. Of course, the first thing to understand is which birds are native to your area. Then you can begin to narrow your focus by learning a little bit about their feeding habits. Do they prefer insects, seeds, nuts, thistle, suet, nectar… and, Do they prefer eating off of the ground, platform feeders, tube feeders, etc.? To help you in this process there are a number of “Field Guides” available for purchase or you can simply do a little on-line investigation. One excellent resource is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s web site at www.allaboutbirds.org
In addition to providing feeders that offer seed, suet or nectar you should consider adding native plants that provide birds with year-round access to seeds, nuts, and berries. Planting the appropriate evergreen trees and shrubs can provide food as well as excellent cover throughout the year. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at www.wildfower.org maintains lists of recommended native plants by region and state.
Year-round access to water is an important ingredient in your backyard bird habitat. Preferably, the water should be located near the food supply. A simple pedestal bird bath is a good start but it is not a bad idea to offer multiple sources of water. A pond or shallow dish at ground-level can provide water for both drinking and bathing. In warm weather, the water supply should be changed regularly to prevent it from becoming a mosquito breeding ground and in winter you should use a heater to ensure that the birds’ water source does not become a solid block of ice.
Providing shelter may be the most involved part of creating an inviting bird-friendly habitat. It is also one of the most important things to do if you want to convert your yard from a place where birds visit to a place where they live. This may involve reducing the size of your lawn area and surrendering it to native evergreen plants, establishing a brush pile in the corner of your yard, or keeping standing dead trees which can serve as a dwelling places and a source of insects for food. You can also put out nesting boxes for a variety of different birds. Again, a little research into the nesting habits of birds in your area can be very helpful in selecting the proper size and location of nesting boxes.
Other things to consider in creating your bird habitat:
Keep your cat indoors – domestic cats kill millions of birds each year
Eliminate insecticides in your yard – insects are an important food source for birds