Out My Backdoor: Bird-feeding Problems

By Terry W. Johnson

Chances are, if you are reading this column, one of your favorite winter pastimes is feeding birds. As such, each year you spend hundreds of dollars on feeders and foods in hopes of attracting birds within easy viewing distance of your home.

So far, much of winter 2015-2016 has been disappointing for those of us who enjoy seeing white-throated sparrows, cardinals, dark-eyed juncos and a host of others dining at our backyard bird cafes.

Record-breaking high temperatures and rainfall during December played a significant role in reducing the traffic of hungry birds visiting our feeders to a trickle. In addition, the bizarre weather has also greatly enhanced the chances that those birds that do visit our feeders throughout the rest of the winter might contract a life-threatening disease.

Typically, winter bird feeding takes place when temperatures and moisture are much lower. As such, the smorgasbord of seeds we offer birds remains viable for relatively long periods of time. However, the warm, wet conditions that dominated our weather last month caused seeds to germinate and some quickly became victims of mold and bacteria.

Birds that feed on these contaminated seeds can become sick, and even die. Five of the main culprits that flourish in these conditions are aspergillosis, salmonella, finch disease (Mycoplasma conjunctivitis), avian trichomoniasis and avian pox.

All across the state, sunflower, millet and other seeds have germinated in feeders and on the ground. Likewise, moldy seed has clogged feeders.

Yet all of the above diseases can be prevented if we take a few precautions.

When possible, select feeders that have screen bottoms. Seeds in these feeders will dry out quicker than in traditional feeders.

Begin by closely examining the seeds in your feeder. Look for any seeds that have sprouted or appear moldy. If you find seeds that fit this description, put them in the trash. Whatever you do, don't simply discard them elsewhere on your property. If you do, I guarantee that wildlife will find the tainted food wherever you toss it.

If you find tainted seed in your feeders, after removing the seed thoroughly wash the feeders with a solution of bleach and water. The solution should contain one part bleach to 10 parts water. Dry the feeders before refilling them. Repeat this procedure every six weeks.

If you find moldy or sprouted seed on the ground beneath feeders, rake it up and soak the grass and soil on which it was found with the bleach and water solution.

Keep in mind that, if you scatter feed on the ground, seeds in direct contact with the wet earth will deteriorate far quicker than those placed in a dry feeder.

One easy way to cut down on the amount of seed wasted is to reduce the amount offered in your feeders. Part of the potential problem most of us have faced this year is that we filled our feeders to the brim anticipating that flocks of birds would soon descend on them. This simply didn't happen, in part, because birds don't visit feeders as often during warm weather.

As a result, the seeds were exposed to temperatures soaring into the 70s and above, and the relative humidity ranged from 90-100 percent. This created incubator-like conditions ideal for mold and bacteria to grow.

Consequently, until birds begin arriving in greater numbers, partially fill your feeders. This ensures that seeds have a better chance of being eaten before they "go bad."

Another thing that you can do is to buy top quality seed. Most of us buy a mixture of seeds, and that’s fine. However, buy a mix that contains only a small amount of sorghum (milo). These are the round reddish brown seeds in your mix.

Although sorghum is found in practically all wild bird food mixes, at least in my neck of the woods, these seeds are eaten far less often than others such as white millet and black oil sunflower seeds. Birds often toss them out while feeding. As a result, a pile of sorghum seeds quickly forms on the ground beneath a feeder. Since sorghum deteriorates faster than most seeds once it comes in contact with the wet ground, it can create a health hazard for birds sooner than many other seeds.

If you don't like sunflower seed hulls building up beneath your feeders, buy hulled sunflower seeds. Using these more expensive seeds eliminates the sanitation problem created by a buildup of hulls.

While our bird-feeding efforts, at least through December, been largely a bust, don't abandon this enjoyable hobby. When cold weather settles in for a while, the birds should arrive en mass.

By sanitizing your feeding area, you will be able to enjoy many hours enjoyment knowing that you are not exposing these long-awaited guests to health risks spawned back last month when you were filling your feeders dressed in a short-sleeved shirt.

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact rick.lavender@dnr.ga.gov.) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network, at http://tern.homestead.com. “Out My Backdoor” archive.