If you’re a bird lover, you may be wondering whether you should take down your feeders due to the recent outbreak of avian flu. While bird flu is not new, the U.S. hasn’t seen a large-scale outbreak since 2014-2015, so it’s understandable to feel confused and unsure about what to do. In this article, we’ll provide you with some background information on bird flu and which birds are affected, as well as expert advice on how to protect your feathered friends.
Avian flu is a viral infection that affects birds, including domestic poultry and wild birds. It can cause mild to severe illness, and in some cases, death. In the following sections, we’ll explore what avian flu is, whether you should take down your feeders, and what some experts are saying about the current outbreak. We’ll also provide you with tips on how to protect birds from avian flu and answer some frequently asked questions.
What is the Avian Flu?
Avian influenza, commonly known as avian flu or bird flu, is a disease that affects birds caused by influenza A viruses. These viruses come in different strains, such as H5N1. Influenza A viruses are classified by two groups of proteins: Hemagglutinin or “H” proteins (H1-H16) and neuraminidase or “N” proteins (N1-N9). They are also classified by how “pathogenic” they are.
Which Birds are Affected by Avian Flu?
Wild birds, especially aquatic birds such as ducks, gulls, terns, geese, sandpipers, and herons, are the main carriers of avian flu. These birds can spread the virus to domestic poultry like chicken and turkeys. Raptors such as eagles, hawks, and owls can also be infected by ingesting the virus from eating infected birds.
There are two types of avian flu viruses: low pathogenicity avian influenza (LPAI) and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). LPAI strains occur in the wild among waterfowl and shorebirds. These strains usually don’t cause illness to the bird, but can still be transmitted to other birds and domestic poultry. HPAI strains, on the other hand, are highly infectious, spread rapidly, and have severe symptoms that cause fatalities.
According to Audubon, a mild version of the avian flu (LPAI) is often present in wild birds that show no symptoms. However, when exposed to domestic poultry, it can mutate into the more aggressive strain (HPAI), which can then transmit back into the wild bird population.
The virus spreads through close contact bird to bird, and also when birds come into contact with infected surfaces. The virus is present both in saliva and feces.
In North America, ducks and waterfowl are the most affected by avian flu, while songbirds have been found less likely to contract and transmit the disease than waterfowl. Therefore, it is unlikely that bird feeders will contribute significantly to the spread of avian flu. However, it is important to avoid having any birds come into contact with poultry, as poultry are highly likely to contract the virus from any source.
Should You Take Down Your Bird Feeders?
During an avian flu outbreak, many people wonder if they should take down their bird feeders to reduce the risk of infection. According to experts, it is usually not necessary to take down bird feeders unless you keep domestic poultry or waterfowl on your property. Poultry is very vulnerable to catching the more severe forms of the virus.
However, some infections have been found in corvid species such as crows, ravens, magpies, and blue jays. It is theorized that corvids, who often scavenge, may be picking up the virus from consuming infected carcasses. This could point to a more widespread outbreak than we’ve seen in the past, potentially affecting more species.
While it will take more data to determine if current strains of the avian flu are significantly impacting songbirds or hummingbirds in ways that they did not in the past, currently, poultry, waterfowl, and raptors remain the most at risk.
What Some Experts Are Saying
National Audubon Society
According to the National Audubon Society, it is recommended to follow the guidelines provided by local and state agencies. During spring migration, they suggest disinfecting shoes after visiting parks with waterfowl to prevent transmitting the virus to unaffected areas.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states that there is currently a very low risk of an outbreak among wild songbirds. They do not recommend taking down feeders unless you also keep domestic poultry, according to the National Wildlife Disease Program.
The Raptor Center (College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota)
The Raptor Center (TRC) advises pausing the use of bird feeders and baths in areas with HPAI transmission in any avian species. They suggest waiting until the rate of virus transmission in wild birds dramatically decreases before using feeders and baths again. TRC believes that the science is still unclear on the role of songbirds in the 2022 H5N1 outbreak. Therefore, it is best to be overly cautious and not encourage birds to gather.
The Seattle Audubon states that the virus is not thought to be spread by bird feeders, although various health agencies recommend caution with feeders located near backyard poultry flocks. They recommend regularly cleaning bird feeders as a good practice.
Birds Canada says that the use of bird feeders is still safe on properties without domestic poultry. Avian influenza does not affect all bird species in the same way. While it can cause severe illness and death in domestic poultry flocks, it is currently not considered a disease threat to feeder birds.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) asks people living in their state to take bird feeders and bird baths down at least through the end of May or until infections in the Midwest subside. They also advocate for cleaning feeders and baths with a bleach solution before putting them away. More states are emerging with this same recommendation.
How to Protect Birds from Avian Flu
To protect birds from avian flu, there are several measures you can take. First, report any suspected cases of sick or dead birds to your state health or wildlife agency. Additionally, it is important to practice good hygiene when handling bird feeders and bird baths.
Clean feeders and bird baths every 1-2 weeks with a 10% chlorine bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water). Rinse feeders thoroughly and allow them to completely dry before refilling. Replace bird bath water daily.
If you have chickens, ducks, or other domestic poultry on your property, take down all bird feeders and bird baths. Sanitize cages and feed stations frequently, as the virus can live on surfaces such as clothes, boots, equipment, and cages. By following these steps, you can help protect birds from avian flu.
What are the symptoms?
Birds infected with avian flu may exhibit neurological and respiratory symptoms, which can be fatal. Symptoms include disorientation, clumsiness, uncoordination, and unusual head movements. Sneezing and nasal discharge are common respiratory symptoms. However, many birds carrying the milder version of the virus do not show any symptoms but can still transmit the virus.
How do birds get infected?
The virus is mainly shed in feces and nasal secretions. The primary transmission paths are bird-to-bird contact with an infected bird, such as sharing grazing or foraging areas, contact with food or water contaminated with infected feces, and contact with contaminated feed, clothing, and equipment on poultry farms. Raptors and other scavenging birds can become infected by eating an infected bird.
Can you get bird flu from bird feeders?
While it is rare for avian flu to be transmitted to humans, especially for those who do not come into frequent contact with infected birds, precautions should always be taken. It is a good idea to wear gloves when touching or cleaning your bird feeders or baths. At the very least, make sure to thoroughly wash your hands immediately after any contact with your feeders or bird baths. Remember, birds rub their face and body on these surfaces, and they may also poop on them. If you keep poultry or ducks on your property or work more closely with any birds, follow stricter precautions. You can find more specific information for your situation on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site.
Are hummingbirds affected by avian flu?
It is unclear if hummingbirds can be carriers of avian flu. In theory, they probably have a lower chance of carrying the virus compared to songbirds. Hummingbird feeders present a lower risk than other types of bird feeders because they attract a much smaller variety of birds. However, it is still recommended to take precautions and practice good hygiene when handling hummingbird feeders.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it safe to continue feeding birds during the avian flu outbreak?
Yes, it is generally safe to continue feeding birds during the avian flu outbreak. However, it is important to take precautions and follow guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.
What precautions should you take when feeding birds during the avian flu outbreak?
When feeding birds during the avian flu outbreak, it is important to follow these precautions:
- Clean bird feeders and bird baths regularly with soap and water.
- Disinfect bird feeders and bird baths with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.
- Wear gloves when handling bird feeders and bird baths.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling bird feeders and bird baths.
How can you prevent the spread of avian flu through bird feeders?
You can prevent the spread of avian flu through bird feeders by following these guidelines:
- Do not overcrowd bird feeders.
- Use feeders that allow birds to perch rather than ones that require them to stand in the food.
- Avoid feeding birds on the ground.
- Discard any leftover food and clean the feeder thoroughly.
What birds are most susceptible to avian flu?
Waterfowl, shorebirds, and domestic poultry are the most susceptible to avian flu. However, the virus can infect other bird species as well.
When should you take down your bird feeders during the avian flu outbreak?
You should take down your bird feeders if there is an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian flu in your area. Check with your local authorities for guidance on when to take down your bird feeders.
Are there any alternatives to feeding birds during the avian flu outbreak?
Yes, there are alternatives to feeding birds during the avian flu outbreak. You can provide birds with natural food sources such as native plants, berries, and seeds. Additionally, you can provide birds with fresh water in a bird bath or shallow dish.