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Feeding Birds in Your Backyard

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Feeding Birds in Your Backyard
Are We Killing Them with Kindness?


By Veronica Bowers, Native Songbird Care & Conservation

Feeding birds is an enjoyable pastime that affords opportunity for close-up views of our backyard birds. Our observations help us learn to identify species of common birds and study their behavior. Over time, we may even get to know individuals of a species.

While feeding birds benefits us and offers an easy meal for the birds, it also creates potential hazards Birds are at risk for accidental collisions when feeders are placed near windows. When gathered at a feeder, birds become easy prey to free-roaming cats and opportunistic raptors. Bird feeders also create an unnatural concentration of wildlife that becomes vulnerable to the spread of various diseases. 

There are several diseases that birds can contract at or around birdfeeders. Most recently Pine Siskins, a small finch species that spends the winter in Sonoma County, have experienced a mass die-off from Salmonellosis. Native Songbird Care & Conservation (NSCC) started receiving calls in November with reports of sick and dead Pine Siskins. NSCC and our friends at The Bird Rescue Center have received dozens of Pine Siskins since the outbreak began. The cause of the outbreak is directly connected to this species feeding together at bird feeders. 

4 common diseases spread at bird feeding stations: 

Salmonellosis, a bacterial infection, is a common disease typically afflicting species such as Pine Siskins, and occasionally other finch species, that flock together in large numbers at feeders and transmit the bacteria through droppings. Birds sick with this disease can appear lethargic, fluffed and easy to approach. It’s worth mentioning that a cat or dog that preys on a bird sick with salmonellosis is vulnerable to becoming sick with the disease.

Avian Pox is a viral disease that causes growths on birds’ faces, legs, wing joints and feet. It is spread through direct contact with infected birds, ingestion of food and water contaminated by infected birds, or contact with contaminated surfaces such as feeders, birdbaths, and perches. Biting blood-sucking insects, such as mosquitoes, can carry the disease from one bird to another.

Trichomaniasis is caused by an internal parasite that can affect a wide variety of birds, but Mourning Doves and Band-tailed Pigeons are especially susceptible. The disease causes caseous growths in their mouths and throats, and can result in death from starvation.

Mycoplasmal Conjunctivitis is a bacterial infection common among House Finches that frequent birdfeeders. Birds appear to have red, swollen and crusty eyes. In extreme cases, the eyes are swollen shut and the birds can succumb to starvation, exposure and predation. Prolonged illness with this disease can also cause permanent blindness.

If caught in time, and the bird is delivered to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, some of these diseases are treatable; however, prevention is always the best cure. If you feed birds in your backyard, please help keep them healthy by following the Intelligent Bird-Feeding Guidelines. 

Intelligent Bird-Feeding Guidelines

If You Have Dead or Sick Birds Visiting Your Feeder:  Immediately REMOVE bird feeders and birdbaths. Clean up and safely dispose of all waste and spilled seed in the feeding station area. Scrub feeders and baths with soap and water and rinse well. Prepare a 10% bleach solution soak feeders for 10 - 20 minutes. Rinse very well and allow feeders to dry completely. Do not rehang feeders or return birdbaths for at least one month after the last sick or dead bird is seen. To clean birdbaths, prepare a jug of bleach solution to bring outside. Scrub the bath with soap and water, rinse well and fill with bleach solution. Cover the bath with a board to prevent birds from bathing in the bleach solution. Soak for 10-20 minutes and rinse very thoroughly. 

If you’re able to capture sick birds, please make arrangements to deliver it ASAP to Native Songbird Care & Conservation at 707-484-6502, or Santa Rosa Bird Rescue Center at 707-523-2473.

Please take preventative measures and follow the instructions above for disinfecting feeders and birdbaths. These measures should be practiced at least every two weeks to ensure healthy birds. Birdbaths should be emptied and refilled with clean water daily, regardless of disease outbreaks. Wash your hands with soap and water after contact with a feeder, birdbath or sick bird.