How to feed birds without putting them at risk

Published: June 11, 2021

A bird on a bird feeder. Photo by Kerrie Wilcox

Birds are a tremendous source of joy and solace, so it’s no wonder bird feeders are so popular. Bird feeders let you see birds up close, take in every stunning detail, learn their vocalizations, and observe their habits and quirks. (And you can do all that from the comfort of your home, while sipping your coffee.)

“The best thing about bird feeding is it gives people a connection with nature,” says Kerrie Wilcox, who manages Project FeederWatch with Birds Canada. “And that’s what gets them to care about birds.” 

When you care about birds, you want to protect them. So if you are going to put up bird feeders, it’s important to take precautions to keep birds safe. Here’s how to provide a safe feeding environment for birds—and when it’s best to take bird feeders down.

Regularly clean bird feeders and baths

“Feeders encourage birds to congregate more densely and more frequently than natural food sources,” says Dr. Jessica Rock, a wildlife rehabilitation veterinarian in Hilden, Nova Scotia. “So one sick bird’s respiratory or fecal secretions can cause a great number of birds to get sick.” 

Rock says if you want to feed birds year-round, you need to thoroughly clean and dry feeders regularly. Any moisture makes it easier for a disease to spread. 

Birds Canada recommends soaking and scrubbing bird baths and feeders every two weeks, using a 10 percent bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water). Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every 2-5 days. Rinse feeders thoroughly and allow them to dry completely before refilling. You should also rake the ground under feeders and discard fallen seeds, which can get mouldy or contaminated with feces. (Wilcox has a table under her feeders, so she can clean up easily.)

Use multiple feeders

A single feeder can cause too many birds to congregate, increasing the risk of disease transmission. Set up a few feeders to give birds space and avoid crowding.

Choose the right feeders

Unfortunately, birds don’t have the best table manners. So you should avoid open trays and platform feeders, which birds can stand (and poop) on. Feeders with small openings or “ports” can also be a problem, as the openings can become infected with a bird’s saliva or nasal secretions. Tube or cage-style feeders are the best options. You can also cover your feeder with a plastic dome to keep it dry.

Choose feeders made of plastic, steel, or glass. They are easier to clean than feeders made of porous surfaces, such as wood or clay.

Keep cats indoors

Outdoor cats are the leading cause of human-related bird mortality. They kill between 100 and 350 million birds every year in Canada—and bird feeders are like an all-you-can-eat buffet. So it’s important to keep cats indoors—or give them supervised outdoor time. 

Unfortunately, you can’t control what other people do with their pets, and many people notice neighbourhood cats stalking their bird feeders. If you see cats visiting your bird feeder, the responsible thing to do is take the feeders down. 

Wilcox says you can try taking your feeders down for a week or two to discourage cats—but you should be vigilant. “If a cat keeps coming back,” says Wilcox, “Then take the feeder down for good, and maybe talk with the neighbour.”

Prevent birds from colliding with windows

Millions of birds are killed in Canada every year from colliding with windows. Birds don’t perceive glass, and they mistake reflections of sky or habitat as the real thing. Since bird feeders attract birds to your yard—and near your cottage windows—it’s a good idea to make your windows safe for birds by putting up films, decals, cords, or screens that will break up reflections.

You should also keep bird feeders within three feet of your windows. That way if a bird is startled from the feeder, it won’t build up enough momentum to seriously hurt itself if it does fly into a window.

Use native plants to attract birds

Whether you have bird feeders or not, gardening with native plants is a great way to attract birds to your yard. Native plants can provide food and shelter throughout the year, and they don’t cause birds to congregate like feeders do. Plus they will attract a greater diversity of species, since not all birds eat seeds. 

Birds Canada has a new Bird Gardens website that gives you plant recommendations tailored to your region and the growing conditions on your property.

Remove feeders when there is disease

Even if you clean bird baths and feeders regularly, they can spread disease—especially when there are large concentrations of birds. Feeders bring birds into close contact with each other and increase the likelihood of birds ingesting contaminated food or water. 

If you see a sick or dead bird near your feeder, you should take feeders down for two weeks and clean them thoroughly. And if there is an outbreak of a particular disease in your region, feeders should be taken down altogether until the risk is gone. 

“When those types of events happen we ask people to stop feeding to prevent the spread,” says Wilcox.

Rock says there are three diseases of major concern that can be spread by bird feeders: trichomoniasis, salmonellosis, and mycoplasmosis. 

“Unfortunately all three of the diseases look very similar, spread very easily, and are associated with poor prognosis,” says Rock.

Here’s what to look out for:

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is a highly contagious disease caused by the microscopic parasite Trichomonas gallinae. This disease progresses rapidly, causing the inside of the mouth and esophagus to become inflamed and riddled with lesions. Unable to close their mouths or swallow, birds usually starve to death within 8-10 days. Infected birds may look emaciated, listless, or puffed up. They may have discharge in their eyes and be unable to close their mouths. 

Trichomoniasis is spreading across eastern Canada and is prevalent in the Maritimes, where it has had the biggest impact on finches. If you have a cottage where trichomoniasis is present, you should take down bird feeders and bird baths during the warmer months.

Salmonellosis

Salmonellosis is caused by infection with Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. It is widespread and affects many species—especially feeder birds like finches and grosbeaks. Like trichomoniasis, salmonellosis causes inflammation of the esophagus and crop tissues, preventing birds from eating and drinking—and causing death from starvation and dehydration. Humans can contract salmonellosis by touching a sick birds or contaminated bird feeders. It doesn’t always make people sick, but it can cause fever, acute abdominal pain, and diarrhea. 

Infected birds may show rapid, laboured breathing, shivering, incoordination, lethargy, fluffed up feathers, droopiness, diarrhea and convulsions. They may also drool or regurgitate food. If you see a sick bird at your feeder, you should take your feeders down for two weeks, and make sure to wash your hands well after touching the feeders.

Outbreaks of salmonellosis tend to occur in the spring and winter, especially when there are heavy concentrations of birds. This past winter, there was a deadly outbreak in BC that killed large numbers of pine siskins. If you live somewhere with an outbreak of Salmonellosis, take feeders down and put them up again in the spring.

Mycoplasmosis

Mycoplasmosis, also known as house finch eye disease, is caused by infection of Mycoplasma bacteria. The disease is most common in house finches, but it can affect multiple species, including American goldfinches, evening grosbeaks, and purple finches. It is spread through the exchange of ocular or nasal discharge.

Symptoms of Mycoplasmosis can include red, swollen, or crusty eyelids, and clear discharge. Infected birds may have wet, matted feathers around the face, or fluffed up feathers. Mycoplasmosis can cause blindness and usually leads to death. It has caused significant declines in some bird populations, in some cases up to 40 percent. 

Mycoplasmosis is more prevalent in the eastern part of North America, but it has been identified across Canada—including PEI, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and BC. If you see a sick bird or hear of an outbreak, take feeders down until the outbreak has subsided.

Take down feeders when bears are active

Black bears are shy, and they usually avoid people—unless they find a bird feeder. Birdseed has loads of calories, and a bear will go to great lengths to get its paws on some. Once bears start coming around, they can quickly become a nuisance, and if they can’t get to your feeders they may try to get into your cottage instead. A nuisance bear may have to be put down—which is not only tragic for the bear, but can orphan its cubs. To prevent conflicts with bears, take down feeders in the spring and only keep them up when bears are hibernating.

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