Feeding garden birds

Posted: Thursday 26 January 2012
by Kate Bradbury

How often do you clean your bird feeders? Once or twice a year? Whenever you refill them, or just when they’re looking dirty?

Blue tit on a peanut feeder, image courtesy of Ray Kennedy, RSPB Images

How often do you clean your bird feeders? Once or twice a year? Whenever you refill them, or just when they’re looking dirty? Never? I probably clean my feeders every three to six months. They’ve only ever attracted five birds: a pair each of blue tits and great tits, and a lone robin. But, despite the low traffic, from now on I’ll be cleaning my feeders much more regularly.

Research suggests that diseases, such as salmonella, trichomoniasis and avian pox, are becoming more prevalent in garden birds. Many have been present in low levels for years, with others restricted to just one or two species.

But recently, some diseases have become more common. Avian pox, for example, previously only affected woodpigeons and dunnocks. But it was seen for the first time in British great tits in 2006 and has now spread across southern England into Wales. In tits, the disease causes large pink lesions around the beak, wings and legs, which can inhibit sight and agility, making the birds more susceptible to predation.

Trichomoniasis is caused by the trichomonas parasite. This used to only affect pigeons, doves and birds of prey. But since 2005, it has spread to finches – particularly greenfinches – which have since suffered huge declines.

This is all very sad, but gardeners can help by keeping an eye out for signs of disease in their gardens, and keep their bird feeders clean. At this time of year, there are more birds visiting our feeders, increasing the potential for infection to spread. But while it’s impossible to diagnose a specific disease, it’s easy to spot a sick bird. Most birds on feeders are energetic, hopping from one perch to the next, but sick ones are often slow. Fluffed up and lethargic, they may have wet faces, because some diseases can prevent them from eating, so they regurgitate saliva and food.

So if you’ll be sitting down watching birds for the Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend, keep a close eye on bird activity. If you see signs of disease, empty and clean your feeders immediately. Invest in new feeders if you can – many are now easy to clean and some even come with antibacterial properties. Regularly move your feeding station to another part of the garden, as dropped saliva, food and droppings can infect other birds.

(You can help the experts track the spread and monitor national bird diseases by reporting sightings of sick or dead birds to the RSPB by calling 01767 693 690. To find out more about how you can help birds, and for information on the common diseases affecting garden birds, visit the Garden Bird Health Initiative pages.)

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Talkback: Feeding garden birds
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Adam Pasco 27/01/2012 at 16:53

Good advice, Kate. And it's not just bird feeders that must be kept clean, but bird baths too. Possibly it's even more important to keep bird baths clean, and I scrub mine every month.

I've also recently emptied out a bird nest box, and sterilised it with boiling water.
It doesn't take long, and is time well spent if it helps keep my garden bird population healthy.

oldchippy 29/01/2012 at 15:15

Hi Kate,I think the bird's Know it's Big Bird watch Day again as last year we have had very little bird activity in the garden.

greenjude 09/02/2012 at 20:15

Very good advice, Kate, but it isn't always practical to move the feeders, especially in a small garden. I move mine back and forth about 1½m but I'm not sure that's far enough to make much difference. I'm considering regularly removing the top layer of soil (with grass, weeds and sprouted seeds!) and replacing with soil from elsewhere, or putting paving slabs under the feeders that I can clean.