With cases of avian flu being reported, your typical feeder birds should be safe, but if there are turkeys – or even ducks, or geese – around that bird feeder, you might want to give it a good cleaning. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

It has been a few weeks since the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced the presence of “highly pathogenic avian influenza” (aka avian flu) in a non-commercial backyard flock of chickens in Knox County. Unfortunately other cases have come up since then and while there has been good coverage of this, I’ve heard from a lot of people who have concerns about feeding wild birds at this time.

An American tree sparrow is probably not at risk of avian flu, but be aware of birds that are susceptible hanging out at or near the bird feeder. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It is important to note that the avian flu does pose a risk to domestic fowl – such as chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, domestic ducks, geese, and guinea fowl – but it is not known to affect songbirds or other “feeder birds.” Unless you are taking care of or raising poultry, there is not a need to take down bird feeders or to stop feeding wild birds. If you are caring for birds, it is recommended that they be taken inside and kept away from wild birds, especially if you have wild turkeys or ducks that visit your feeders.

We’ve also noticed an uptick in the number of people reporting finches at the feeders suffering from avian conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis gets spread among birds at feeders – especially house finches and goldfinches at tube feeders – so if you do see that,  temporarily take down your feeders and give them a thorough cleaning.

These two illnesses are a good reminder to keep your bird feeders – and the ground below your feeders – clean. The avian influenza virus is transmitted via saliva, mucous, and feces, so there is very little risk of human infection. Nonetheless, it is good to take extra precautions like wearing gloves and a mask (and possibly eye protection), especially if you’ve got turkeys and ducks visiting. Discard old seed and give the feeders a good scrubbing with a diluted bleach solution or vinegar. Some feeders can also be put in a washing machine; either way it is important to get them cleaned out and allowed to dry before putting them back out. Bird feeding comes with responsibilities. Let’s make sure we aren’t doing more harm than good.

Bird feeders at housing developments

Bird feeders provide us with an amazing window into the lives of our backyard birds. There’s not much else you can do that literally brings birds closer to you. However, in the same way that feeders make it easier to see birds, they can also make it easier to see some unintended or unwanted visitors. A surprisingly common inquiry we get at Maine Audubon comes from folks living in homeowners associations, residential homes, or other organized communities who are told they are no longer allowed to have bird feeders out because of the rodents they attract. While I’m sympathetic to the musophobic out there (people with a fear of rodents), I think most of these restrictions are generally unwarranted and I’d like to provide some tips for living with bird feeders.

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First, a common assertion is that the “bird feeders are attracting rodents.” I believe this the wrong way to identify what is happening. Instead, I’d say “bird feeders are making rodents visible.” Those mice, voles, etc., are already around; they are just hidden away foraging on natural seeds instead of taking the risk of being exposed (to predators) and feeding on your abundant food supplement. I’ll acknowledge that the increased amount of food may allow for a greater carrying capacity of rodents in your area, but you’d probably need a ton of food to have any measurable effect on the population.

My point is that these rodents are already there; they don’t just appear because you put up a bird feeder. For a quick reference, in my southern Windham backyard where there is not a single bird feeder on the property, I’ve found many northern short-tailed shrews (especially fond of my woodpile), one meadow vole (living under my hose reel), more Eastern gray squirrels than I can count, and with every cold snap in the fall some combination of white-footed and/or Eastern deer mice find their way into the walls of our house. If you have a problem with rodents, you need to deal with the rodents. Removing a bird feeder is not going to do much, especially as it’s an outdoor food source (and I’d rather the mice find food outside than come looking for it inside).

If you do find yourself being forced to take down the feeders because of perceived effects they are having, there are some other ways you may be able to attract birds. First, plant native plants. Check out mainenativeplants.org for a list of plants that will support birds, including some of my favorites like arrowwood viburnum and highbush blueberry. Sunflowers are a nice way to provide seeds “naturally,” plus you can cut and save the heads for later in the winter. Ask if your homeowners association will still allow suet feeders or hummingbird feeders. Being creative with a bird bath or other water feature could also work to keep your birds around.

There are many psychological benefits to feeding birds, so at a time when people are increasingly isolated and not traveling from home as much, being able to connect with nature locally is especially important. In a 2017 study done in the United Kingdom, an overwhelming majority of participants reported that they felt more relaxed when watching birds at a feeder. A common finding of studies looking at the effects of nature on human psychology is that the closer we are to nature, the lower our stress levels are, including improving blood pressure and heart rate. So bird watching is actually good for your health.

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about backyard birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug leads free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 8 to 10 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.


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