Bird Feeders

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Often overlooked compared to price and design, disease management is the single most important issue to consider when making your selection of bird feeder type. We do not want to do more harm than good! 

 

Did you know that infectious diseases account for 37% of all non-trauma mortalities in birds analyzed by the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-operative in 2020? Diseases associated with bird feeders are the fastest growing reported diseases in Ontario. 

 

When properly cared for and maintained, bird feeders can be a great way to observe and learn about the many different types of birds found in our backyard. If bird feeders or watering stations are offered it is crucial they be cleaned and disinfected at least once a week to prevent the spread of disease like salmonellosis, conjunctivitis, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis, or avian pox. These diseases occur when infected birds use the bird feeder and shed droppings or secretions that contaminate the bird feeder or the food within it.

 

Why is disease management such an issue for bird feeder birds?

The issue is that birds are highly mobile and are constantly moving back and forth between multiple feeders which are also are interacting with other migratory birds and populations through the year. All this movement creates the perfect environment for diseases to spread; and unfortunately the diseases of bird feeders can infect nearly all bird species. Additionally, many bird species are gregarious - meaning that they live in groups for mutual protection and defense. This close proximity when roosting, eating, and foraging - combined with their high degree of mobility, creates a perfect storm for disease transmission.  

 

How do I consider disease management when selecting a bird feeder?

Select bird feeders that are manufactured from plastic, steel or glass because they are easier to clean and disinfect than those with porous surfaces (e.g., those made from wood or clay). Small feeders are best because they do not allow large numbers of birds to congregate and feed at one time which greatly reduces contact rates that could permit disease transmission. Additionally, small feeders empty quickly which prevents seeds from getting wet or spoiled.

 

Also important is to prevent large aggregations of birds at a single location which leads to high contact rates and increased potential for disease transmission. Bird feeders should be placed at widely separated locations if possible.

Fenced yard with yellow and red flowering plants, a stone path and bird house mounted on the fence

Bird feeding is for the birds, for their benefit first, and ours second. We need to take responsibility for their welfare, and enjoy feeding our birds by following safe practices that prioritize their health.   

 

There are many considerations when choosing a bird feeder. The ideal bird feeder:

  1. safely provides the type of food that will attract the species of birds you want to view

  2. will be able to withstand winter weather

  3. will be squirrel and predator resistant

  4. is safely positioned on your on your property

  5. and, most important of all, will be easy to clean on a regular basis

With disease management in mind, and so many choices, which bird feeder is the best one? 

  • Tray or Platform Feeders

    • NO! Tray or platform feeders allow birds easy access but they can - and do - defecate on the seeds so that later feeding birds may get infected with disease. Also these are impossible to clean. 
       

  • Hopper or “House” Feeders

    • NO!  Hopper or “House” feeders allow birds easy access and prevent defecation but they allow the seeds to become humid and wet, which allows fungal spores and disease agents to infect all the seeds. If they are made of wood they are impossible to clean.
       

  • Window Feeders

    • Not the best - Please consider an alternative.  Window feeders may be nice for us to watch, but having a bird feeder this close to a window causes preventable window strikes according to our partner Kawartha Wildlife Centre. Window feeders can be effective at reducing collisions in the feeder species, but when birds of prey collide with windows, bird feeders are often cited as a risk factor. This risk can be reduced with better feeder options.

  • Tube Feeders

    • Yes - but. Tube feeders can be effective. They contain single perches so that birds are not physically touching when feeding and if made out of glass or plastic, can be easily cleaned.  Unfortunately, the seed-containing tube on most tube feeders extends an inch or more below the bottom-most feeding ports where seed can become infected with disuse. Look for a tube feeder that is blocked at the bottom feeding station and that has the perches off-centre; when the perches are all lined up, the bird above just poops on the birds below!
       

  • Nyjer Feeders

    • Yes - but. Nyjer feeders can be effective especially for finches. They can be washed in high heat and cleaned easily and also the husks of the nyjer fall to the ground without building up. They are limited by the species that will eat nyjer however.
       

  • Suet Feeders

    • Yes - but. Suet feeders can be excellent sources of protein for nuthatches and woodpeckers but ensure that the suet is bird friendly fats. Beef fat is best for birds, avoid other fats if possible. As these are fatty/protein substances, ensure they are kept clean weekly.
       

  • Nectar Feeders

    • Yes - BUT. There is a big BUT here. Nectar feeders can be a great way to enjoy hummingbirds but keeping sugary water clear and clean is a DAILY job in summer. With high temperatures, this liquid becomes foul very quickly, leading to more harm than good in most cases. We do not recommend using them, but rather planting native plants for hummingbirds.