Monday, March 3, 2008

Why Are My Birdies Sick?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing what seems to be a growing number of sick birds; a Junco with a bad foot, then a House Finch with a problem in one eye. He kept it closed for the most part, but when he opened it, it was all dark and muddy looking. And another with his face all black and swollen, though still able to eat, that one kept one eye closed a lot. A female House Finch with a large lump on her cheek returned one day with the side of her face all bloody. Several others seem to have wet-head; it looks dark and sticky so that I wondered how the birds were getting their heads cut. Yesterday I saw another Junco holding one leg out stiff behind, and today yet another female finch showed up; missing an eye. I fully intended on doing some research when I crossed a blog I frequent and discovered the problem. Salmonella!

Infected birds shiver, sneeze, look somewhat unsteady and have drooping heads and wings. They suffer from lack of appetite and loose weight. Droppings look yellowish, which is a prime indicator. The birds tend to puff up a bit, looking obviously sick, and they become somewhat lethargic making them appear tame…and easy prey to cats. BTW, cats can catch the disease, so it is best to keep cats away from birdfeeders. Death is common in animals with salmonella. Oddly, it also causes arthritis in some birds; hence the bad limbs?

The Salmonella is a bacterium that naturally lives in the guts of some birds and the only time outbreaks occur is when the birds become stressed; when food is scarce, in extreme weather, etc. It is spread through droppings, so the bacterium quickly passes among birds congregating at birdfeeders and birdbaths. Hundreds of birds, in just one location, die this horrible death when outbreaks occur.

Okay, I just started feeding the birds a month ago…so never considered ‘dirty feeders’. However, having watched a bird sneeze and puke and cough and puke again, I’m thinking I do have dirty feeders. Okay, they’re not that kinda dirty…but it only takes one bird to infect the mob and the way they all eat it’s no wonder it spreads. Plus, there is an awful lot of seed they toss about; encouraging many more birds to feed on the ground beneath the feeders.

It’s been snowy, wet and muddy, no…I have not yet cleaned up below the feeders; but I will. Right now everything is under almost a foot of snow that came in yesterday.

I have pulled in two feeders. One place suggested only using tube feeders and never platform feeders. I’m confused a bit by that, as I have one made if plastic that is easy to clean. I will toss the wooden feeders I have, as wood is difficult to disinfect.

Apparently it is best to remove all feeders for a few weeks to let birds disperse a bit while the epidemic passes. Then, thoroughly clean feeders and scatter them around rather then keeping them bunched up. Moving them occasionally is also a good idea…I suppose that gives the ground below a feeder a chance to ‘clean up’.

If one does keep a feeder in a stationary location, fallen seeds must be raked and removed regularly.

Bottom line is though, clean, clean, clean! Use 2 parts simple household bleach in the cleaning water, scrub the nooks and crannies and then let the feeder air-dry.

Please, let’s keep our wild birds healthy! These helpful lists from the first link below:

DOs for successful bird feeding:

  1. Dismantle the feeder if possible, discarding any remaining seed.
  2. Wearing rubber gloves, wash all parts thoroughly in a bucket or basin of hot soapy water. Use a brush to get into corners and crevices.
  3. Rinse the parts of the feeder thoroughly.
  4. Make up a solution of 10 percent bleach and soak the feeder parts for about ten minutes.
  5. Rinse the feeder very thoroughly in fresh water and allow it to dry completely before reassembling it and refilling it with seed.
  6. Clean up the ground below the feeder, removing decaying seed and debris.
  7. Wash your hands thoroughly with hot soapy water, and follow up with waterless hand sanitizer if possible.

DON’Ts for successful bird feeding:

  • Don’t wash your birdfeeder in the kitchen sink. Salmonella bacteria and other disease causing organisms affect humans as well.
  • Don’t fill a wet feeder with seed. Wet seed goes moldy and can make birds sick.
  • Don’t fill your birdfeeder unless your birds will eat that much seed quickly. Keep adding fresh seed and clean the feeder regularly.
  • Don’t feed birds when there is a disease outbreak that can be spread at feeders. If you must put a birdfeeder out, wipe it daily with 10 percent bleach or alcohol.


Sherrie (The naturalist/artist who blogs Brush & Baren here) sent me a note which included this bit:

Sounds (and looks) like you've got critters with avian pox, which is unfortunately really common. The usual advice I hear is to take feeders down, clean them thoroughly (even mild bleach), and leave them down for a few days for the infected birds to disperse. The stuff is really contagious, so social behavior at feeders just makes it worse.

There's a great page on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's site about feeder bird diseases:

Oh lordy…such pictures! I’m thinking I should take all my feeders down in the morning and leave ‘em down and soaking in a bleach solution for about a week! Ugg! I’m not serious about that long a soaking…but I’ll leave the feeders down for at least a week or ten days. In this weather, it seems such a shame, though.


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