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Help fight disease in birds by maintaining your feeders
bird feeder
The author’s backyard bird feeder draws a crowd. Photo by Richard Keith Evans.

By Richard Keith Evans, Bryan County Extension Agent.

This past year has been trying in a lot of ways. I won’t rehash all the reasons here, but I know if it were not for the bird feeder hung outside my “office” window I would have gone crazy all those telecommuting days. I truly enjoy looking up from my workspace from time to time and seeing the birds outside. It always amuses me to watch a Titmouse or Blue Jay come up grab some seed and flee. The back and forth between sparrows and blackbirds, and even the fun that buntings have been for this amateur bird watcher. The birds remind me a lot of ourselves running into stores and getting out as fast as we can with groceries or other goods.

Each time I venture out to refill the feeders I can hear them telling me to hurry it up and put their lunch out! Unfortunately, I am getting reports of a disease problem that may affect these feathered visitors.

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t do the best job maintaining my feeder or feeding station in general, I rinse and wash every so often but I could do better. Like many folks, I have gotten in the habit of just filling the feeder and forgetting it. Over time spilled seed, hulls, and bird droppings accumulate in a pile under the feeder.

Damp, sprouting, or moldy seed can accumulate in the feeder during wet weather as well. Seems that we may have gotten a little rain in these parts the past couple weeks, maybe it was just me. These conditions can pose a health risk for the birds we are attracting to our feeders.

I’ve received a few calls about this issue over my time as an the County Agent. If these birds were to sent off to the lab, the lab report its almost certain that it would confirm the birds were the victims of Salmonellosis or an infection by Salmonella bacteria. Don’t panic this is not some bizarre new disease outbreak. Salmonella is a common cause of mortality of wild birds.

The Salmonella bacterium lives in the bird’s intestines. It is shed in the droppings of infected birds. Direct contact with infected birds or the contamination of feed or water by infected feces spreads the disease.

Certain conditions make the disease more common. Stress from severe weather can make the birds more susceptible. Crowding around feeders and birdbaths concentrates birds increasing the chances of disease spread. So, as you can see, conditions this winter have been favorable for the disease to occur.

Salmonellosis can affect all avian species but it is most common among pine siskins, house sparrows, and goldfinches. Affected birds may have ruffled feathers, unsteadiness, diarrhea, and may have a drooping head or wings. Dogs and cats are rarely infected but you should discourage pets from eating any dead birds that appear around the birdbath or feeders.

If you remove dead birds use disposable gloves when handling them and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

There is not a practical treatment for wild birds but there are things we can do to help prevent the problem. Clean your feeders periodically.

Use warm soapy water and disinfect them with a solution of one part household bleach to nine parts water. Plastic or metal feeders are easier to disinfect than wooden feeders. Let the feeder dry thoroughly before adding seed. Occasionally remove the spilled seed and hulls from beneath the feeder. Discard moldy or damp seed. Move your feeders periodically to prevent he buildup of waste below. Consider putting up additional feeders to reduce crowding. Finally, be sure to clean and change the water in birdbaths regularly.

You can bet that I am going to start spending a lot more time maintaining my bird feeder in the future. My winged visitors have really become a part of my daily routine and my wife and I surely enjoy their company. For any questions about bird feeding and health shoot me and email to either (Liberty County) or (Bryan County) I’ll be happy to help anyway I can!

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