Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Bird flu and other hazards at feeders

Common Redpoll

With avian influenza making the news and more and more poultry catching it, one would think the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website would be staying on top of wild bird cases. But here it is, April 21 at 9:30 pm CDT, and they’re still not showing the American Crow that tested positive in Minnesota at the beginning of the month, though now they are showing one infected crow in North Dakota. No cases of ravens or Blue Jays are showing up on the website, nor any other songbirds.   

Some people are instantly jumping to the conclusion that redpolls with their feathers fluffed must necessarily be infected with bird flu, even on cold days when just about all the redpolls in that flock are fluffed for insulation, and even though sick individuals, who do fluff their feathers more than healthy birds in any weather conditions, are probably much more likely to be sick from one of the usual spring diseases than bird flu. But I can only say “probably,” because we cannot know when no agencies or organizations are systematically gathering data on songbirds, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, pigeons and doves, or other backyard birds. Recommendations on either side of the issue are based entirely on educated guesses. On April 20, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology responded this way to a Facebook question about bird flu:  

So far, the Cornell Lab has not recommended taking down bird feeders. The current avian flu does not appear to be affecting songbirds at all, and there is nothing to suggest that it would spread at feeders. Only domestic fowl, waterfowl, and a few birds of prey seem to be affected. Taking down feeders doesn't hurt, as songbirds have plenty of wild sources of food this time of year. But, there's no evidence yet that it's necessary. Groups that are making that recommendation are playing it extra safe!

Cornell's All About Birds website has an information page about this recommendation. Meanwhile, the Cornell Cooperative Extension on March 15 recommended that people take down feeders. And both are legitimately interpreting the data, because there is no effort to collect dead songbirds to assess what may or may not have killed them. My original plan was to keep at least a few of my feeders going during the tail end of this huge redpoll irruption, but there’s no way of knowing whether grackles and other migrating birds that spend a lot of time in wetlands and could have been exposed to the virus via waterfowl are testing positive anywhere, so I decided not to risk it. But I keep second-guessing myself.

Black-capped Chickadee

Oddly enough, after two years of being extremely careful with our own social distancing, masking, and getting vaccinated and boostered, and tracking the entirely scientifically based CDC recommendations, Russ and I both tested positive for Covid this week. We’ve taken every precaution all along because we need to protect our 1-year-old grandson as well as ourselves, so it’s ironic that after being so vigilant, we got sick exactly when public masking requirements and other precautions are being thrown to the wind with no scientific basis at all. I’m bitter that some unvaccinated people who refuse to wear masks anywhere are among the most strident in criticizing anyone who leaves their feeders up. Even though I’ve taken my own feeders down for a bit, other people just as conscientious and caring about birds have not—and unlike the Covid vaccination and masks, with regard to bird flu there’s no science behind anyone’s decision.  

I wish disease were the only problem posed to birds by bird feeding. I just learned about a horrible feeder design being sold by a company called “Heritage Farms” as the “Audubon Seeds 'n More Metal Hopper Bird Feeder Model 7452R”. The way it’s designed, birds insert their heads into it to get a seed, and one person I know of went out to fill hers and found a chickadee, already dead, whose head had been entrapped. On Amazon, the item includes two comments from others  regarding this, one who came upon a dead sparrow entrapped this way, and one who found an unidentified bird entrapped but still alive, and wrote that her husband had to get his metal cutter and cut between the openings—he saved the bird in time. Audubon’s name on the product implies that it endorses it. I hope they pressure the company to not only take their name off it but to get the product off store shelves and Amazon immediately.   

Chestnut-sided Warbler

I bought some wonderful window tray feeders from Wild Birds Unlimited some time around 2000 or 2001. I’ve loved these for a long time, in part because the removable, washable bottom is screened, so rainwater drains well. But twice this spring when I was watching my female Red-bellied Woodpecker in that feeder, I saw that one of her claws was momentarily stuck in the screening. She quickly extricated it by herself, but it put up a little red flag in my mind. 

Then last week I got an email from a reader in Sacramento, California, about a much more tragic occurrence at a feeder with what looks like the exact same kind of screened floor, this one a roofed platform feeder from Duncraft. She discovered a male goldfinch that had gotten a claw stuck in the screening and, by the time she found it, was dead.  

In the past, I used to recommend people provide suet in mesh onion bags, and Nyjer seed used to be sold in mesh bag feeders, too. In both cases I’ve heard from people who found birds such as nuthatches and finches entangled and dead, so I no longer recommend using any kind of soft mesh where birds can find it.  

But screened feeder bottoms? As I noted, I’ve been using my own feeders with what I’m pretty sure is exactly the same screened bottom for almost two decades without any problems except that one case this year, and these screened bottoms really do help keep seed dry. Fortunately, my Sacramento reader is much cleverer than I and immediately came up with a solution—she lined the bottom of that feeder with parchment paper! That’s what I’m doing from now on, too. It needs to be weighted or folded around the edges so it can't blow away, and obviously has to be changed occasionally. 

Screened feeder bottoms may not represent a statistically significant hazard, but just one preventable bird loss of one of my birds is one too many. 

Crappy pictures of a Pileated at my window feeder