It may be time to take down my bird feeders for good. I’ve been feeding birds in the garden for at least 30 years. I love watching our local downy woodpecker feeding upside down on the suet feeder. When a goldfinch happens by in spring and perches on the nyjer seed feeder, it makes my day.
|Goldfinches like small seeds of coneflowers and (thistle-like) nyjer-photo Rob Amend|
So why change this longstanding habit? First I learned that I could be poisoning hummingbirds by offering them infected or moldy sugar solution unless I emptied, cleaned and refilled the feeder every couple of days. That was more than I could promise, so I took that feeder down.
|Hummingbirds are safer on native cardinal flower than at my feeder|
Then I stopped filling the seed feeders in the warm months. I read that I could feed birds more sustainably by choosing plants that produce seeds they can eat. That gave me a reason to add more native plants to the yard, always a welcome opportunity. And more diverse native plantings did seem to attract more birds.
|Native coralberry will attract lots of birds-photo Servernjc|
This winter, though, I told myself that birds could use some extra seed to sustain them through the cold months. I filled my favorite feeders: a big oblong hopper with a weighted bar to close off the seed supply when a squirrel lands on it and a house-shaped suet feeder with a mesh-covered floor for clingers who feed upside down, like nuthatches and woodpeckers.
|This battered bird feeder does keep squirrels out|
Once the food was on offer, birds soon arrived, alighting on tree branches and inside twiggy shrubs, checking for predators and competitors before darting over to the feeders to grab a quick meal.
Unfortunately, my bird feeders could be superspreader locations, where birds come in contact with deadly infectious agents. Wildlife observers are reporting increased deaths of migratory finches caused by salmonella infection, possibly an unintended consequence of homebound bird lovers filling more feeders during the pandemic. Disease-causing microbes shared at bird feeders include bacteria, protozoa, fungi and viruses.
|Pine siskin, one of the affected species-photo Cephas|
To avoid spreading infection, experts advise cleaning your feeder every one to two weeks, scrubbing it with soap and water and then soaking it in diluted bleach. Seed and seed hulls that fall to the ground, they declare, should be swept up in case they carry disease. Ideally, I shouldn’t put out more than two days’ worth of seed at a time, so that it’ll stay clean until it’s eaten. Even that stone birdbath I’ve been keeping filled is supposed to be scrubbed out and sterilized regularly.
|The bird bath in May|
When I found a dead junco on the ground, I got the message: this is serious. I like feeding the birds, but I don’t want them to die for my amusement.
|Dark-eyed juncos visit frequently in winter|
I know myself well enough to realize I’m not going to bring those feeders indoors to clean them every two weeks through the winter. And I’m uncomfortable about the environmental impact of manufacturing chlorine bleach. It’s time to let our birds forage for themselves. In future, I’ll leave the bird feeders to those more committed to cleanliness. Instead, I’ll be planting more shrubs and perennials with berries and edible seeds.
|American black elderberry offers lots of fruit for birds|