CORVALLIS, Ore. – With the current outbreak of avian flu, wild bird enthusiasts wonder if they should take down backyard feeders. Since songbirds very rarely catch the illness, experts say there is no need.
“Currently veterinarians tell us there is very low risk to native songbirds from the highly pathogenic avian influenza strain, said Dana Sanchez, Oregon State University Extension Service wildlife specialist. “At this time there is no official recommendation to take down wild bird feeders. We still recommend that everyone practice good everyday hygiene for the wild birds by regularly cleaning feeders and birdbaths because of salmonella, mold and the ‘everyday’ health concerns that we can combat with regular cleaning of surfaces that get a lot of use.”
Whether there is a disease outbreak or not, cleaning all bird feeders once a week is essential. Moisture contributes to mold in seed, while fecal deposits cause diseases transmitted on avian feet after perching on feeders. Discard any feed left in the feeder, scrub inside and out with a long-handled brush – available in different sizes and lengths at bird shops or online – and follow with a rinse of bleach solution at a ratio of 10 parts water, one part bleach. Let it dry thoroughly before filling.
For more information on the avian flu and wild songbirds, see The Cornell Lab.
To limit the spread, people who own their own backyard chicken coops, must be vigilant, according to Ryan Scholz, Oregon Department of Agriculture state veterinarian. He recommended building fences so wild birds like ducks and geese don’t interact with domestic birds and wiping down shoes and clothing before coming home after visiting a park where wild waterfowl frequent. Bird owners should also report sick birds to either the Oregon Department of Agriculture or a local veterinary clinic. The public can also call the state veterinarian at 503-986-4711.
For homeowners who put out supplemental food for songbirds, high quality is essential, Sanchez said. Mixes with red millet, golden millet, flax seed, rape seed and oats are a waste because birds will just kick those fillers out of the feeder, where they’ll fall on the ground and attract unwanted visitors like rats. They’ll also sprout and grow into undesirable plants.
Put black oil sunflower seeds top on the list because they attract so many different bird species, Sanchez said, including chickadees, black-headed grosbeaks, house sparrows, northern flickers and song sparrows. To enjoy finches, offer their favored nyjer seed, also called thistle seed, in specialized feeders with openings small enough to hold the seed in and perfect for their tiny beaks. Many birds – waxwings, grosbeaks, chickadees and robins – love fruit, which can be put out on elevated platform feeders.
People enjoy watching woodpeckers going at suet blocks. The fat-and-seed mixtures are best used in fall and winter when birds need the extra energy to keep warm. In warm weather suet goes bad quickly, which is not good for birds. So, if you want to use suet in summer, check it often and remove it as soon as it starts to smell.
How you arrange feeders around the yard doesn’t seem to matter to birds. In patio gardens or apartments, gathering them together in groupings is usually the only option. A larger garden allows for more feeders and more areas for placement.
“You’ll notice no matter how many ports you have, there will be competitions,” Sanchez said. “It’s a matter of ‘Get off that perch; it’s mine.’ You’ll see a lot of movement around.”
Regardless of how many feeders you have and how you’ve arranged them around the yard, be sure to provide shrubs and trees for shelter from wind and predators.
“Birds at feeders are always on the lookout for danger,” Sanchez said. “There are times when you put feeders where humans can see them, but birds won’t use them if there’s not a shrub nearby. Having food somewhat close to cover is a key consideration.”
Bird need water, too. Serve it up in a shallow, flat-bottomed bowl with ½ to 1 inch of water. Place it in either sun or shade, clean it often and change the water daily or at least every other day.
Most of all, if you’re going to attract birds to the garden, don’t spray chemicals or use pelletized weed and feed or moss killer.
“We really need to be thinking about what we’re putting on our gardens,” Sanchez said. “We need to be cautious.”