Snow has taken the continent by storm. Winter has set in. Even here on the mild West Coast, I see photos of friends walking on already-frozen lakes. It’s only November, and a long winter is ahead, when some of our natural friends will need a little help. Like birdies.
Feeders and bird baths are critically important in the winter months, when snowfalls can cover food sources for days or weeks. Weather coupled with the disappearance of natural habitat through housing developments means that bird feeders are providing a life-saving service to our winged friends.
Don’t serve off of a dirty plate
Just recently, we’ve learned the disheartening news that birds have declined in numbers by as much as 400 million in Europe since 1980 alone.
Setting up a birdfeeder might be a great nature-lover act, but it’s absolutely essential that you maintain the feeder, not just stock it.
You’d never keep eating off a dirty plate, but that’s sort of what happens when people just keep refilling birdfeeders without doing maintenance. Through rot, decay, and mildew, it’s easy for birds to become diseased or infected via your feeder.
The Audubon Society offers a few simple tips for maintaining your feeder properly so your visiting avian friends don’t get sick, so let’s expand on that here.
Symptoms to watch for
Maybe if it were Tweety, we could ask our bird friends how they’re doing and we’d know, but instead we’re left looking out for behavior that can indicate birds are sick.
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Diseased birds are less active. They can be lethargic and just cower on the feeder. They may be less likely to fly and look dazed. Just as how unhealthy hair can indicate poor health in humans, scruffy and dull feathers can indicate birds are unwell.
One illness called “Trichomoniasis” can result in birds having mouth sores and difficulty swallowing, and you’ll see them clumsily dropping food a lot. This is a bad thing because the fallen food is then infected and can remain actively infected for days — making it likely that other birds or animals will consume it and possibly get infected too.
Location and setting
I wrote about the basics of creating bird-friendly spaces, including the safe distances that bird feeders should be away from windows and such, in this column.
If you’re worried about healthy food and preventing diseases among birds, it’s not a bad idea to have an easy-to-maintain surface where you’re hanging your feeders. Old seed can make birds sick, so it’s nice to be able to sweep under your feeder, or at the very least rake it up or cover it with rocks or mulch, especially in the case of diseases like “Trichomoniasis,” which can spread via the infected seeds themselves.
If your bird population is healthy, you’re recommended to clean your bird feeder and disinfect it every two weeks. If you see any signs of illness in visiting birds, disinfection should occur weekly, says Audubon.
The best way to disinfect is by soaking your feeder in a solution that is 9:1 water to bleach. Rinse it thoroughly, dry it, and refill it. Bird baths, however, should ideally be cleaned daily. Empty the water, dry it, refill it with fresh water.
It’s very important that you practice safe hygiene too. After all, avian illnesses have been known to transfer to humans, and even without illness, it’s easy to infect an open sore or your eye. Practice extensive hand-washing or even wear rubber gloves when doing these acts of maintenance, especially if you have any recent cuts or scrapes.
Keep it orderly and tidy
If you’re a popular pad for birds to stop in at, it’s important to provide enough feeders, and a variety of feed, to keep overcrowding at a minimum.
There’s a reason illness spreads quickly in classrooms and public transit. Being crammed together just isn’t healthy. This is true at bird feeders too. Provide ample opportunities for the birdies to spread out and chow down, and it’ll help keep transmission minimized.
Even still, make sure you’re keeping the fallen old seeds under control. It might be easiest if you have some pavers under your feeders so it’s a quick sweeping job when needed.
Maintenance, attentiveness, generosity
Without proper hygiene, bird feeders can cause more problems than they solve. But with maintenance, attentiveness, and generosity, you can play a big part in preventing the continuing decline in bird numbers. After all, our avian friends need all the help they can get as climate changes their feeding patterns and developments encroach on their habitats.