Out My Backdoor: Clean Feeders Less Risky for Birds

By Terry W. Johnson

When you enter a restaurant and spot a health inspection notice posted on the wall indicating that the restaurant has received a rating of 70 or below, would you eat there? Probably not. By the same token, I am sure that you don't want to expose birds to often-fatal diseases while eating at your backyard bird diner.

You know a potential problem exists when seeds tossed out of feeders have sprouted, creating what looks remarkably like the top of a Chia head. Another clue is the formation of what appears to be a mini-volcano composed of discarded seed hulls beneath a feeder. Of course, if you find dead birds or birds suffering from swollen or watery eyes, or ones that act abnormally, the other birds that show up for your blue plate special are putting themselves at risk.

Five of the most common diseases that can infect feeder birds are salmonella, aspergillosis, avian pox, trichomoniasis and finch disease, a form of conjunctivitis. These diseases can be spread from bird to bird through feeding or moldy seeds, through direct contact, and through eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated with the droppings from sick birds.

Begin your efforts to thwart diseases by periodically cleaning feeders and bird baths with a solution of 10 parts water to one part liquid household bleach. Rinse with clean water. Don't refill feeders until they are completely dry. Also don't make the mistake of placing a birdbath near a seed feeder. Some birds don't have any table manners. Accordingly, in a short time the water will be fouled with seeds and hulls.

It is not a good idea, either, to let seeds or their hulls accumulate beneath feeders. Deadly molds grow on moist seeds and hulls. Milo, the round brownish-orange seeds in mixed bird seed mixtures, deteriorates rapidly when it gets wet and is particularly vulnerable to mold. The mold, in turn, produces spores that are inhaled by birds. This is more of a problem during the warmer months. However, during this winter molds have taken advantage of the periods of balmy weather that have given us brief respites from frigid weather over the past few months.

For that reason, seed buildups below feeders should be raked up and disposed of in plastic bags at least once a week. Also change the locations of feeders from time to time. Interestingly, researchers have found that sunflower seed hulls contain a plant growth inhibitor. By removing the hulls, you are ensuring those chemicals won't affect the grass or ornamental plants beneath sunflower seed feeders.

Keep all birdseed dry. Avoid using feeding trays with solid floors not equipped with drain holes. Instead, use hopper-type feeders, feeding trays covered by roofs or feeding trays with screen bottoms. Additionally, it is not a good idea to scatter seed on the ground during warm, damp weather.

One of the first lessons taught budding wildlife biologists is that crowding promotes the spread of disease. This principle is particularly true in backyard bird feeder areas. Accordingly, it is a good idea to spread out your feeders across the yard as much as possible.

One disease preventative measure that is often overlooked is removing any sharp or rough edges found on feeders. Scratches or cuts caused by these edges can be easily infected with viruses and bacteria.

If you regularly feed birds, you will invariably spot a sick or dying bird at your feeders. When this happens remove the food remaining in your feeders and clean up the area as best you can.  Then, as much as you hate to, cease feeding for two weeks. This will cause the birds to disperse and reduce any health risk posed by your feeders.

Some of the diseases that infect birds, such as salmonella, can be transmitted to humans. Wear plastic gloves or place your hands inside plastic bread bags when handling dead birds. In addition, after touching dead or sick birds or cleaning feeders, don't eat or touch your mouth or eyes until you have thoroughly washed your hands.

When it comes to cleaning feeders and feeding areas, don't procrastinate. Quick action can save birds and ensure that you backyard bird diner is the best that you can make it.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section.