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How to Keep Your Bird Feeder Open for Business

Jena Donnell
Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Adding a bird feeder is one of the simplest ways to attract birds to your yard. And while there are a variety of feeder types to choose from, feeding strategies to utilize, and foods to offer, all bird feeding programs should include one thing – a regular cleaning plan.

Keep bird feeders clean by washing in a one-part bleach to nine-part water solution at least two to three times a year. Rotating feeding stations and cleaning the area directly under feeders with a rake or leaf blower can also help keep your feeding station open for business. Bird baths should be scrubbed at least once a day.

When birds congregate at feeders or bird baths, there is a possibility that bacteria and diseases can spread. Bird feeders can attract sick birds who are looking for an easy meal. While it's tempting to help these birds, they unfortunately can place the other visitors to your feeders at risk. Bacterial disease organisms such as Salmonella and Mycoplasma, as well as the fungus Aspergillus, which causes respiratory illness, can be transmitted through bird feces that are left on feeders and perches, or that contaminate fallen seeds on the ground below the feeder. 

  • The disease organism that birds most commonly come in contact with at feeding stations is the Salmonella bacterium, which is spread through droppings. Common symptoms include lethargy, diarrhea and swelling of the mouth and crop. Birds healthy before the infection are often able to fight the infection, but stressed or young birds may struggle more.  
  • House finches are susceptible to a bacterium that can live in the birds’ tear ducts and may cause “house finch eye disease.” The bacterium causes the birds’ eyelids to swell and crust over. It can be spread to other house finches when infected birds come in contact with seed hulls and other birds. House finches with the disease are more prone to predation as their sight and flight are impaired.
  • Birds in Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states also have succumbed to a “mystery” illness, but this mortality event has not yet been detected in Oklahoma. Symptoms appear similar to the house finch eye disease, but the disease has been affecting nestling and fledgling American robins, grackles, blue jays, red-winged blackbirds and European starlings. No definitive cause of the disease has been identified.

If sick or symptomatic birds are observed at your feeders, biologists recommend disinfecting the feeder and cleaning under the feeder immediately. The feeding station should be closed for 5 – 7 days to allow the sick birds to disperse and recover without contaminating other birds at the feeder. When the feeding station is reopened, it should be in a new location over “fresh” soil that is not potentially contaminated. Continued monitoring is encouraged; remove feeders if sick or symptomatic birds reappear. Neighbors with feeding stations also can be alerted so they can be vigilant to the possibility of sick birds at their feeders.

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