Gardens Illustrated
Greenfinch on feeder © Vidar Nordli-Mathisen
© Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

Avoiding trichomonosis and other bird diseases

Published: July 5, 2022 at 9:33 am
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Naturalist Martin Hughes-Games explains how you can keep your garden birds safe by maintaining good hygiene around bird feeders, bird tables and bird baths and window feeding trays

We all love to see a garden filled with birds feasting, drinking, and bathing. But the bird feeders, bird tables and other feeding points we put up can easily become a focus for the spread of disease. Our feeders and drinkers tend to attract high numbers of different bird species, which can cause cross contamination. There are many disease transfer points across our gardens that need to be considered - bird tables, feeders, bird baths and window feeding trays will all transmit disease if not looked after and thoroughly cleaned frequently.

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Separating feed, feet and faeces is key to protecting our wild birds. We must ensure they cannot stand, regurgitate, or defecate in the bird food or water they are given. It’s vital to clean bird feeders and tables regularly because if we don’t then we are literally, killing them with kindness.

Right now, there are three main bird diseases affecting garden birds that are of serious concern.

Garden bird diseases

Trichomonosis

Trichomonosis is a parasitic disease that is passed from bird to bird via saliva. This happens wherever birds feed intensively, including hanging feeders or bird tables. Whilst many species can become infected, finches are the most affected. Shockingly, the British greenfinch population is now endangered and may face extinction after falling by a huge 66 per cent since 2006 due to this disease and other common garden birds are also susceptible to Trichomonosis. Right now, chaffinches are also experiencing the same dramatic decline as greenfinches.

Avian flu

Generally passed on by birds migrating into the UK, through direct contact or contaminated saliva and droppings. This viral infection occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds, like ducks, geese, and swans, worldwide. It can however also infect domestic poultry such as chickens and other bird and animal species, making good hygiene when feeding garden birds a priority. Once again, feeding stations are a potential hotspot for transmission.

Salmonella

A bacterial infection transmitted through rotting food and droppings of infected birds that contaminate food and water. This can cause salmonellosis in garden birds, especially in seed-eating birds such as greenfinches and house sparrows.

How to create a safer garden for birds

To avoid the spread of disease, supporting garden birds responsibly means making the right choices and following the right steps. Using the right bird feeder and adopting a regular and effective cleaning routine is critical.

THINK ABOUT FOOD AND FEET

  • Keep food dry – Only use feeders that prevent the seed from getting wet. Bird seed that is exposed to rain and becomes wet is a more suitable environment for disease transmission. The food MUST remain dry and free of mould whilst in the feeder.
  • Keep feeders, drinkers and baths free from feet – birds don’t wash their feet! If a bird can stand in a feeder or water source, then it will spread disease.
  • Choose wisely – ensure your feeder doesn’t allow birds to stand in it. Also choose one that is quick and easy to clean. If it is difficult to do so, then you most likely won’t clean it frequently enough. Ensure it is made from a non-porous material and has a smooth surface.
  • Cover up – it should not be possible for birds to access the food with anything except their beak! Don’t allow them to walk in their food. Dirty feet can spread droppings and therefore disease.
  • Consider ditching the bird table – sick birds sitting directly on bird seed are more likely to contaminate it. Stick with a perch feeder wherever possible.
  • Water – many of the same rules apply. Provide clean drinking water every day and wash it properly weekly. Dirty water can stand stagnant for weeks or months, making disease transmission an inevitable consequence. If you use a bird bath, avoid clay, cement, or corroded iron as they are not ideal and can contaminate the water. As above, foot contamination is common, so as with feeders, clean and re-fill weekly.

GARDEN HYGIENE

It’s also good practice to clean the areas surrounding and below your feeders and tables. Be sure to remove any wet, soiled, or spoiled food and droppings from these spaces.

Where possible place your feeder in an elevated position to avoid contamination.

Also, avoid feeding on the ground as this quickly becomes stale and encourages unwanted guests.

HOW TO CLEAN YOUR BIRD FEEDER

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1. Wear gloves
2. Remove or empty old food
3. Take the feeder apart before scrubbing with hot soapy water and a brush
4. Rinse thoroughly with cold water to leave no trace and dry
5. Treat with a non-toxic disinfectant or weak bleach solution

Naturalist Martin Hughes-Games is an ambassador for Finches Friend, a company that makes unique, safe and easy to clean bird feeders that are built to last.

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