Many people enjoy feeding wild birds from backyard feeders, and it has become a huge industry, with billions of dollars spent each year in the U.S. on birdseed, feeders, baths, and other accessories. Letcher County has a large number of residents who watch birds and maintain backyard feeders.
Birds certainly appreciate the tasty seeds and treats dispensed from our feeders and will congregate in our yards sometimes in great numbers to partake of the bounty. With a steady supply of easily available food, there is little reason for them to travel very far to forage. This can produce a grave problem for our birds and could cost them not only their lives, but declines in populations as well.
By providing feeders, we alter the natural feeding behaviors and cause birds to have more frequent and prolonged contact with one another, which can expose them to diseases. Birds that don’t have the benefit of backyard feeders tend to eat a food source, such as seeds or berries, and move on, never lingering very long in one spot. Those that are sick or weak aren’t able to fly between food sources and quickly die. Feeding behavior changes when wellstocked feeders are present. Sick birds in particular tend to remain in close proximity to the food source because they are too weak to fly and look for natural food. They can infect the feeders and surroundings with many different diseases, including salmonella.
There have been several salmonella outbreaks in recent years in multiple states that caused alarming die-offs of different bird species, so bad in some areas that the local fish and wildlife departments asked people to remove all backyard feeders for extended periods to allow sick birds to die quickly and prevent the spread of the disease. Salmonella causes diarrhea, which weakens the birds to the point of death. The bacteria is spread through the bird droppings. Some birds don’t exhibit symptoms but they become carriers and spread the disease. Some strains of salmonella are transmissible to pets and humans.
Conjunctivitis is a bacterial infection that is taking a toll on house finch populations and is apparently also now infecting purple finches and gold finches. The birds develop crusty, swollen eyes, which affects their vision. Unable to fly, they cannot find food or water and eventually die. The disease is highly contagious.
What can be done to protect our birds and prevent the spread of disease?
Take a good look at the feeding environment you have created. Is it one that is designed with the safety of the birds in mind? The seed mixture should be served in a manner that keeps it clean and dry. Wet seeds can become moldy. Birds should not be able to sit or walk in the seed mixture. This is vitally important, because if they are sitting or standing on the seeds, then they are also able to poop on the seeds, and that will spread diseases. Old seed should never be allowed to build up under feeders, for the same reasons stated. It will harbor molds and diseases that will sicken any bird that picks through it, in addition to attracting rodents. Areas under feeders should be meticulously raked and kept clean. A bucket or large flowerpot with a garbage bag can be placed under feeders to catch anything that falls. It should be emptied daily to minimize birds being able to feed from contaminated seeds. This makes general cleanup easier.
Do not place birdseed directly on the ground, where the birds will be able to poop on their food. Not only will this spread diseases, but you will develop a rodent problem.
Open platform feeders that are designed for birds to stand in should be avoided, especially if an area is known to have infected birds. It is difficult to maintain proper hygiene if the birds are defecating on the seed mixture.
Feeders should be washed weekly in a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. Submerging the entire feeder in a bucket will ensure all the cracks are disinfected. Be sure to rinse thoroughly and allow to air dry completely. If it isn’t rinsed well, the bleach solution will sicken the birds. Wooden feeders have an attractive rustic look, but you can’t wash them because the cleaning solution will saturate the wood. It is best to use metal or plastic feeders that can be cleaned regularly.
Don’t keep the feeders full. If you provide only a small amount of seeds the birds won’t come to depend on the feeder and will range further afield, minimizing prolonged contact at feeders.
Consider putting seed out intermittently, or only on very cold days. This will allow the birds to get a quick bite and move on, instead of lingering near the feeders.
If you see a bird sitting fluffed up with eyes closed and/or shivering, having difficulty flying, or reluctant to fly away until you have approached fairly closely, it is important to take immediate action. Take down all feeders, disinfect them, and don’t hang them back up for at least two weeks. This will force the birds to disperse and allow any sick birds to die quickly. A quick death for sick birds is more humane than allowing them to continue feeding, which only prolongs their suffering. It is important to wear gloves anytime you clean the feeder, but doubly so if you suspect any illness. If you find a dead bird, use gloves and a shovel to bury it, and wash your hands immediately afterwards. Disinfect the shovel and any other equipment used in the disposal.
If you maintain a birdbath make sure to change the water daily. If the water becomes cloudy or dirty with use, it may need changing several times a day.
Suet feeders should only be used during the cold months of winter, and the suet baskets need to be cleaned before filling with fresh suet. When temperatures start warming up the suet will turn rancid and will develop black mold. The suets marketed as no melt or for year round feeding should really only be offered to birds during the cold months, since the hot temperatures of summer will cause them to ruin quickly.
For those of us who feed hummingbirds in the summer, we need to also practice good feeder habits. Whether we feed the commercial mixtures or boil our own sugar water, we need to remember to change the feeder frequently in hot weather, every two or three days. Hot temperatures can cause bacteria to grow in sugar water, and it can also convert the sugar water to an alcohol. Do not allow sugar water to become milky or cloudy. If you notice this, empty the feeder immediately as it can sicken or kill the hummingbirds. There is no need to completely fill a large feeder if you don’t have enough hummingbirds to consume it all within two or three days. Instead, only partly fill the feeder. This will ensure the birds have access to fresh sugar water.
If this all seems like too much trouble, or you don’t have time to devote to proper cleaning, please consider removing your feeders. Those of us who are birdwatchers get enjoyment out of feeding and observing birds but we must do it responsibly, and always strive to maintain a clean environment.
Seeing a sick little bird weakly flying and desperately trying to feed itself is a pitiful sight, but it is common in backyards with poor feeder hygiene. Don’t assume that because you haven’t noticed any sick birds that there aren’t any in the area. Unless you are able to observe the birds at close range, or use binoculars, you probably won’t be able to see the ones that are compromised by illness. Sick birds have been identified in Letcher County, which means that everyone in the county needs to be diligent with practicing strict feeder hygiene, including removing feeders if necessary.
Spring migration is approaching, when a large number of migratory birds such as hummingbirds, warblers, and thrushes will return to our county for breeding. Pine Mountain in particular is a summer home to threatened and rare species of migratory birds. We need to take steps now to minimize their exposure to diseases, even if it means removing our feeders altogether. Salmonella can persist on surfaces for months. It could be a terrible blow to their populations if our summer birds arrive to breed in trees and shrubs that have been occupied all winter by infected birds.
Birdwatchers can attract a great variety birds to the yard without the use of feeders. Landscaping with native plants, shrubs, and trees attracts birds with both food sources and nesting areas. It is important to make sure anything you plant won’t be poisonous to wildlife. Many non-native shrubs bought in garden centers produce toxic berries, so be sure they are safe before you purchase them. If you can’t be sure, don’t purchase the plant. Garden centers that sell native shrubs are good places to shop for landscaping. Check with the local county Extension Office for recommendations.
Don’t clean all the plants from the yard in the fall; birds will be attracted to the dried stems all winter as they search for seeds in old seedpods. Leaving your yard/garden cleanup until spring will also benefit pollinating insects and butterflies, since many of them spend the winter tucked under fallen leaves or in the hollow stems of some plants. In fact, the plight of our pollinators has become so dire, there is a national push to encourage landowners to garden in a manner that promotes pollinator habitat, including leaving the fall garden cleanup until spring, and incorporating native plants into your gardens. Some good choices to look for include dogwoods (fall berries), redbuds (seedpods eaten by birds), spicebush, blackeyed Susans, coreopsis, Joe Pye weed, milkweed, and cardinal flower. The flowers attract insects, which attract insect-eating birds. Instead of deadheading the flowers, allow them to go to seed, which will attract a number of birds during the fall and winter. Everyone loves sunflowers, including birds. Plant some and you’ll have an array of birds feasting on the seed heads. Don’t be quick to cut down the stalks, as birds will keep visiting until every last seed has been eaten.
Many birds love fruit, so planting a few blackberry canes will attract birds to eat the berries, and will also attract bees and other beneficial pollinating insects.
Many gardeners plant butterfly bushes to attract adult butterflies, but they aren’t the best choice because the butterflies can’t lay eggs on them and the caterpillars can’t feed on the shrub. Instead, consider planting some milkweed, which not only smells wonderful, but is a butterfly and insect magnet. Milkweed supports many insect species, and is the only host plant of the monarch butterfly. There are several varieties available.
By choosing the right landscaping, birdwatchers can attract a much wider variety of birds to the garden than by relying on feeders alone. Not only will this benefit the birds, but it will also benefit native insects and butterflies. For those who continue to utilize bird feeders, please do so responsibly, be diligent in keeping the feeders clean to avoid the spread of disease, and periodically remove the feeders to prevent prolonged congregation of birds in one area.
While enjoying the birds and wildlife in our backyards, we can all do our part by providing a healthy environment and promoting bird and pollinator conservation.