Steps you can take to protect our garden birds from disease

Blue tit. Photo by Marc Whitlock.
Blue tit. Photo by Marc Whitlock.

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is working hard to make sure the county’s wildlife is protected.

Here Nick Brown, the trust’s wildlife enquiries officer, tells us about the diseases that are affecting our garden birds’ and routine hygiene practices for our feeders and tables that will help to stop the spread of diseases.

Feeding birds in my garden is something I’ve always done more or less throughout my life. Apart from helping the birds, it has given me great interest and pleasure to see them from inside the house, especially in the winter when natural food supplies are short.

Currently I have hanging feeders containing fat blocks, peanuts and mixed seeds and I have bird baths not far away too.

Birds we encounter regularly include blue, great, coal and long tailed tits, gold, green and chaffinches, great spotted woodpeckers, a nuthatch, robins, dunnocks, house and tree sparrows and three or four kinds of dove/pigeon.

We try to keep the feeders, the bird baths and the ground beneath clean as best we can. However, from time to time, sadly we see birds that look unwell and very occasionally we find a dead bird nearby, usually a greenfinch or a goldfinch.

And once, some years ago now, we had a great tit on a feeder with a large red growth on its head.

Bird watchers across the UK became very aware that when you feed birds and they gather in numbers together, the potential for the spread of disease among them in increased.

A rapid decline in greenfinches from being abundant to becoming very scarce in gardens pointed to something being very wrong.

Detailed study on the diseases that birds can get has resulted in us knowing both which diseases are rife and how to reduce the risk that your feeders are responsible for.

The disease that the green and goldfinches contract is called trichomoniasis. It is caused by a tiny parasite and results in birds becoming lethargic, fluffed up and also unable to swallow the seeds they normally eat. It has been known in pigeons, doves and birds of prey for some time but it came to prominence in summer 2005, when it was first noted in British finches. Epidemics of the disease occurred in 2006 and 2007, with smaller scale mortality events noted in subsequent years.

A viral disease that chaffinches contract causes white encrustations to build up on their legs. The birds can recover from this and can survive even quite bad infestations.

Avian pox affects pigeons, dunnocks and especially great tits. It results in large growths usually on the birds’ heads making it difficult for them to see or to feed. It is not infectious to humans but whatever the disease, it is not wise to handle sick birds without wearing gloves and washing your hands thoroughly as well.

Finally salmonella also occurs in birds in gardens and can be both difficult to identify and potentially infectious to humans and other mammals.

Having said this, if you take simple precautions, bird disease can be reduced if not eliminated. Follow sensible hygiene precautions as a routine measure when feeding garden birds and handling bird feeders and tables. Clean and disinfect feeders and feeding sites regularly. Suitable disinfectants that can be used include a weak solution of domestic bleach (5% sodium hypochlorite) or other specially-designed commercial products. Always rinse feeders thoroughly and air-dry them before re-use.

You must also rotate the positions of feeders in the garden to prevent the build-up of contamination in any one area of ground below the feeders. Empty and air-dry any bird baths, ideally on a daily basis.

If you wish to report finding dead garden birds, or signs of disease in garden birds, you can do so by contacting “Garden Wildlife Health”, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO’s) online reporting system linked to on the BTO’s website.

Provided you keep your feeders, the ground beneath them (and your bird baths) clean there’s no reason why you should give up feeding the birds in your garden unless you start to notice many sick birds in which case it is advisable to stop feeding for a few weeks.

For many of us, it is a real joy to watch wild birds at close quarters taking advantage of the food we put out for them.

Each winter evening, just before it gets dark, our fat feeder is visited by a delightful family party of long tailed tits. The fat they eat undoubtedly helps them to survive the long, cold nights ahead. I wouldn’t want to deprive them of their supper or us of our pleasure.

If you like the work of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust why don’t you get involved by looking at all the different volunteering opportunities they have and consider becoming a member. For more information visit the website click here click here or give them a call on 01773 881188.