I am just starting to get a couple of calls about sick or dead birds at birdfeeders. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in the heat of summer, and even sometimes in winter. When we put out bird feed, we attract a lot of birds and focus them in a relatively small area this time of year. When disease or infection arrives at our feeding site with one bird, it is easily transmitted to other birds. If you start to see a bird that acts tame (fluffs up its feathers, seems lethargic, and doesn’t fly away when people approach it), it may already have salmonellas, a common and usually fatal bird disease caused by the salmonella bacteria. There is little that anyone can do to help a bird that is ill with this disease, and handling it may increase your risk of contracting the disease. Here in Rhinelander, good advice might be to first contact Wild Instincts Rehabilitation Center to see if they recommend bringing the bird in for treatment.
Unfortunately, redpolls, grosbeaks, pine siskins and other small finches are often the species most likely to contract the disease. If you start to see these birds dying off in your yard, consider taking down and disinfecting your bird feeders and birdbaths. If you wish to continue feeding, you should reduce the number of feeders you have, and spread them out to lessen the concentration of feces. Die-offs of five birds or more should be reported to the statewide Dead Bird Hotline at (800) 433-1610 with a report including number of dead birds, species of dead birds and geographic location. This information will be forwarded to DNR Wildlife Health and the local wildlife biologist. This is the same number you can call in the summer for reports of potential West Nile virus or avian influenza infections.
Bird feeding is a great combination indoor/outdoor activity. You can help birds and reduce the likelihood of illness if you keep a few points in mind.
• Consider using tube-style bird feeders with small perches rather than platform-style feeders.
• Be careful to keep your feeders and the areas around them clean and free of bird feces.
• Each time your feeder is emptied, clean it with a 1:10 solution of chlorine bleach and warm water to kill any potential bacteria (be sure to wear gloves).
• Clear waste and empty hulls from below feeders, or move feeders occasionally to reduce waste build-up.
• Black oil sunflower seed is important for resident seed-eating birds (like chickadees) because it is a better source of fats than the black-and-white striped sunflower seed.
• A tip most folks never think about: Next time you are in the department store, go down the pet aisle (near the bird seed) and buy a box of grit similar to what you give domestic birds. Mix some of this in with your bird seed. You can also sprinkle it on the ground, but try not to place it directly under the feeders where bird feces will be most dense.
• Open, clean water is very important and attracts lots of birds. Keep bird baths clean.
Finally, speaking of bird feeding, the Great Backyard Bird Count is currently underway, running Feb. 15-18. This is an annual four day event that takes reports of birds observed at backyard bird feeders across the continent. As a wildlife biologist, I really like this survey. It gets citizens of every skill level involved, and it capitalizes on the second most popular outdoor hobby in the U.S. What’s more, they make their results available on an excellent website, so I can look at the resulting data across time and places of interest. For example, last year, it appears we had at least 20 folks report bird observations from the Rhinelander area, and the No. 1 bird observed was the common redpoll. To learn more about the backyard bird count, check out the website at birdsource.org/gbbc.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.
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