Roll out the Welcome Mat for Birds -- Then Clean It
Ah, spring. The run has begun on potting soil and fertilizers at garden stores, seed packets are arriving daily in the mail and the first of the migrating songbirds and hummingbirds are setting up shop around the yard.
Good hosts that you are, you're including the bird feeders and nesting boxes as you spruce up the property.
Or are you?
An estimated 40 million households in the United States supplement the natural avian diet with commercial bird feed, according to Duncraft Inc., a Concord, N.H., company that sells bird feeders, birdbaths, seeds and related products.
Put another way, about one out of every three households participating in lawn and garden activities also is buying wild bird feed, says Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association.
That means that now that we've rolled out the figurative welcome mat for wild birds, it's time we scrubbed it -- and frequently, once a month or more.
Moldy, wet and vermin-contaminated feed left in bags, caked onto feeders or spilled on the ground is being blamed for massive songbird die-offs from Alaska to Maine.
Salmonella is the most common bird-feeder disease and it isn't unusual for the bacteria to be picked up by pets, primarily cats and dogs, after they've eaten infected birds. Then it can be passed along to their handlers. Human cases of salmonella usually aren't fatal, but coming down with it isn't fun. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, headaches and a general malaise followed by abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea, Cornell University veterinarians say.
"There are a lot of different types (of salmonella) out there," says Christopher Brand, head of the National Wildlife Health Center's field and lab research branch. "You should use some commonsense procedures, like wearing rubber gloves for things that might be contaminated. That includes picking up dead birds. Put them in two plastic bags for disposal."
The problem may not be any worse around bird feeders than it is at other places where birds gather, but it is more visible. "We don't really know what's happening with bird mortality in the wild because it isn't often noticed or reported," Brand says.
Good hygiene is the best remedy, but some commonplace cleaners aren't all that effective, says Nancy Coverstone, a University of Maine extension educator. "I know vinegar doesn't do the job especially with hummingbird feeders," she says. "You need one part household bleach and nine parts of water. Soak them for a few minutes, rinse thoroughly and air dry before filling with fresh nectar."
Coverstone recommends buying hummingbird feeders in pairs when using them in summer. "Every morning, I put out one fresh one and clean the other. Nectar can ferment in the heat."
Birdbaths should be about two inches deep and have a rough surface. That way, even small birds can use them for bathing. The water should be changed daily and the ground- or pole-mounted basins placed in the open so splashing birds can't be blindsided by predators.
Offer suet blocks only when the weather is cool; otherwise the sun-warmed paste will mat feathers, reducing insulation and waterproofing, the National Wildlife Health Center says. And don't forget to regularly rake and remove seeds and discarded hulls piling up on the lawn. That chore can be done anytime, not just after the wintertime bird-feeding season.
If all else fails and you're still concerned about contaminated feeders, then remove, clean and store them until the birds thin out. Your common, garden-variety birds will do just fine by foraging, Brand says.
ENN Special Report: Sustainable Gardening
Source: Associated Press