Providing Safe Food and Water for Birds

Providing backyard bird feeders, though unnecessary, is an extremely popular activity in the United States; in fact, over 40% of Americans have backyard feeders. It is so popular that it has become big business and is promoted as beneficial to both humans and birds in that it allows people to enjoy bird watching from the comfort of their own home and provides birds with a steady food source. However, feeding at a communal backyard feeder can have hidden risks for birds.

Red breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Bird feeders as a vector for disease

Bird feeders tend to concentrate many individual birds, and many different species in a small area. It’s not entirely unnatural that birds should gather in large numbers however there is one crucial difference between a flock of birds foraging together naturally and a flock that is frequenting a feeder. With natural foraging, feeding in a particular area will diminish as the available food resources are depleted and the birds move elsewhere. With an artificial food source the food supply is constantly being replenished, so a high concentration of birds is present for an extended period of time. If there are one or two sick birds among the flocks that visit a feeder, they can contaminate the feeder and expose dozens of subsequent visitors to their illness.

House Finch Right Eye Conjunctivitis

A House Finch with conjunctivitis

There are several different illnesses commonly associated with bird feeders that are spread through feces and contaminated food; Salmonellosis, Trichomoniasis, Avian Pox, Conjunctivitis, and Aspergillosis. The most common is Salmonellosis, caused by Salmonella bacteria. In birds, Salmonella spreads throughout the body and may cause abscesses in the lining of the esophagus and crop. Trichomoniasis causes sores and thick plaques to develop in the mouth and throat. Avian Pox is a virus that causes warty growths on the face, wings, legs, or feet. Conjunctivitis or House Finch Eye Disease is a bacteria that can cause eyes to become swollen shut and the bird becomes blind. Aspergillus fungus often grows on damp food and in the debris beneath feeders. Birds develop serious respiratory difficulties, including bronchitis and pneumonia, as a result.

An alternative to bird feeders

Annas Hummingbird fledgling

An Anna's Hummingbird fledgling

In addition to the disease potential, feeders may provide an easy opportunity for neighborhood cats to kill birds and they may also attract mice and rats. There is, however, another way you can attract birds to your yard that avoids the potential pitfalls of feeders. PAWS encourages landscaping for wildlife instead of providing artificial food sources.

By landscaping for wildlife, you can change your entire property into a better backyard habitat. Many people maintain bird feeders as a response to habitat loss, but a feeding station is no real substitute for habitat. Altering your property to provide for the needs of birds and other wildlife will help to give them back some of what they have lost. You will also attract a larger variety of species and reduce the spread of disease. Feeders may be beneficial to birds as a food source during lean times, but in the long term, only appropriate habitat will ensure that these animals will continue to thrive.

Bushtit on branch

Bushtit on a branch

Maintaining your feeders

If you still choose to provide food in feeders, there are several steps you can take to help to minimize the possibility that your feeders will become a vector for disease:

  • Keep your feeders clean. Feeders should be disinfected at least once or twice a month, but weekly is even better. Discard all uneaten food, scrub the feeder thoroughly, and then disinfect it with a 10% bleach solution. Rinse the feeder and allow it to dry completely before using it again.
  • Use small-capacity feeders to be sure fresh food is offered more frequently.
  • Use plastic or metal feeders rather than wood as they can be more thoroughly cleaned.
  • Be sure to wear gloves whenever you are handling your feeders to decrease your own risk of exposure to potential disease.
  • Clean up all spilled seed and feces around the feeder.
  • Move a feeder to a new location every time you clean it to reduce the chance that contamination will build up on the ground below it.
  • Only offer fresh, high quality food.
  • Discard any food that becomes damp and/or moldy, and disinfect the feeder or container that held it.
  • Keep your cat indoors.
  • Don’t place feeders close to windows.
Pine Siskin in bird bath

A Pine Siskin in a bird bath. Photo CC-BY ptgbirdlover


Maintaining bird baths

It can be difficult for birds to find sources of clean, easily accessible fresh water, especially during the dry summer months. Bird baths are an excellent way to provide birds with the water; however, bird baths can also pose a health risk to birds if not properly maintained. Many of the same diseases that can be transmitted by dirty feeders can also be transmitted by dirty water sources. Follow these simple steps to ensure the water you provide your neighborhood birds is safe and disease-free.

  • Change the water and hose out any debris in your bird bath daily.
  • Empty and thoroughly clean the bath with a disinfectant at least once or twice a month.
  • Be sure that all disinfectant has been rinsed away before refilling the bath.

If you do spot birds on your property that appear ill, contact PAWS at 425-787-2500 ext. 854 for instruction.

More bird feeding references

Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Guide to Winter Bird Feeding

Audubon’s Bird Feeding Tips