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.