Wild Wanderings: Keeping Bird Diseases at Bay

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada Birds that are suffering from house finch eye disease will most likely die, but you can help prevent the spread of the disease by keeping feeders clean.

Photo | Orietta C. Estrada
Birds that are suffering from house finch eye disease will most likely die, but you can help prevent the spread of the disease by keeping feeders clean.

Feeding wild birds is a joy, so I keep several feeders around my home. Over the years, I’ve attracted some neat feeder birds: blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, scarlet tanagers, purple finches, and, more recently, pine siskins.

To entice the birds, I hang up seed cylinders and bricks of suet made up of hearty snacks including mealworms, berries and peanuts; I stock up tray feeders with black oil sunflower seeds; and I fill seed tubes with nyjer. By mid-March my hummingbird feeders, containing dye-free sugar water, are already up and stay up until the end of November. It’s a year-round buffet for local birds and those migrating through.

House Finch Eye Disease

Occasionally, a sick bird will visit my feeders and it’s almost always house finch, but I’ve had ill red-winged blackbirds visit too. I can tell that a bird is unwell by its eyes.

A bird with crusty, puffy eyes is a sick bird that most likely has mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, or house finch eye disease. Kerry Wixted, wildlife education and outreach specialist at the Department of Natural Resources, said, “If you notice a sick bird at your feeder, it is best to take the feeder down for about a week and clean it” before putting it back up.

House finch eye disease is a serious problem at bird feeders and keeping bird feeders clean is an important strategy to  combat and even stop an outbreak. It’s a good idea to work it into your home maintenance routine. Wixted recommends that feeders be cleaned every two weeks and adds that if the weather has been wet it’s “good practice to remove any wet seed and give your feeder a good scrub down.” Another tip she shared: Make sure that feeders are completely dry before refilling.

Because feeders are often “a hub of activity and can sometimes facilitate disease transmission” it’s important to keep them properly maintained. It’s not just house finch eye disease that can cause harm to the birds, Wixted explained, “spoiled or moldy seed can sicken birds” as well.

How to Clean a Feeder

Unfortunately, soap and water are not enough to clean away germs and bacteria such salmonella. The best way to clean feeders is by “soaking them in a diluted bleach solution for 10 minutes” at a bleach to water ratio of 1:10, then scrub them with soapy water and rinse them thoroughly.

“As an alternative to soaking in bleach,” said Wixted, “you can soak the feeders in vinegar for an hour or two.” She advises that although this method has not been researched, it is “recommended by Cornell’s Project FeederWatch.” The vinegar method is a good alternative for cleaning hummingbird feeders because soapy water should be avoided and some sites even discourage the use of bleach.

Sick Birds

Wixted noted that if you find a sick or injured bird, “sometimes you can take them to a wildlife rehabilitator for treatment.”  Should such an occasion arise, using gloves and other personal protection, place the bird in an empty unlined box and do not give it food or water. Visit dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife to find a wildlife rehabilitator near you.

Birds that are suffering from house finch eye disease will most likely die. Their eyes will swell until they shut closed, thus blinding them. If they do not get well, they either starve to death or become victims of predation. Enjoying birds and protecting them, in this case, comes at a small price—keeping feeders clean.

Have a question about birds or wildlife in the area? Email orietta@towncourier.com.

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