Wildlife Experts Urge Safety, Cleanliness for Bird Feeders

ent--article_ _media__contact">Media Contact: Cliff Shackelford, Clifford.Shackelford@tpwd.texas.gov; 936- 559-5795, Tom Harvey, tom.harvey@tpwd.texas.gov, 512-389-4453

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AUSTIN – After a rise in calls about backyard bird illness, experts are advising people to regularly clean and maintain backyard feeders and birdbaths, use fresh feed and be cautious about storing feed for long periods. They also suggest landscaping with native plants that provide natural food and use less water.

“Feeders mainly benefit people; they bring birds in and make it easier to see them. So when we feed birds, we have a responsibility to make sure that what we provide is healthy,” said Cliff Shackelford, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ornithologist based in Nacogdoches. “Native plant landscaping, such as with the Texas Wildscapes program, is like a feeder that cleans itself, consistently providing good, fresh food.”

Various diseases can develop in birds that congregate around feeders, including salmonella, avian pox, Aspergillus fungus, and parasitic protozoans.

Bird seed can go bad after it’s been purchased, while it’s stored. Harmful fungi grow most rapidly in humid environments. People should therefore be cautious about using seed that they’ve stored for weeks or months, especially in a warm, humid area.

Also, research by the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville in 2003 shows that bird seed purchased for feeders can contain aflatoxin, a fungus by-product that can cause diseases and harm the immune system, making birds more vulnerable to normally non-fatal illnesses. Corn and peanuts are more likely affected than other foods commonly provided at feeders.

This year, Shackelford said, there’s been a concerning increase in the number of people calling TPWD reporting dead birds, including blue jays, cardinals and doves. However, he said there are common-sense steps people can take to reduce risks to birds, including:

  • Store bird seed in a cool, dry area. Try to use fresh food and avoid using seed that’s been stored at home for long periods. If you still have seed purchased last year, it’s safer to replace it.
  • Regularly empty and clean bird feeders and bird baths with warm water and soap. No harsh cleaning chemicals are necessary.
  • Change the water in bird baths regularly, AND eliminate any standing water on your property to help stop breeding mosquitos and related health concerns, such as West Nile Virus.
  • In addition to a feeder, provide a natural “wildscape” using native plants. This will provide good cover and food for birds and butterflies, and it uses less water and costs less. See the Texas Wildscapes web pages for a wealth of resources.
  • Consider putting out seed only during the colder months, for two reasons:  during the warmer months, Mother Nature provides a healthier buffet naturally, and research has shown that harmful fungus and aflatoxin can grow on seeds during hot humid months.

For more information about how to protect birds from aflatoxin and other dangers, see the aflatoxin in bird seed web page of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry, a trade association for the wild bird and backyard wildlife feeding industry.