How to feed to help, not hurt, wild birds

By Tamara Browning
Tamara Browning
Tamara Browning
June 28, 2021 Updated: June 28, 2021

Feeding birds responsibly by first keeping backyard bird feeders clean goes a long way in preventing illnesses such as salmonellosis in feeder birds, a central Illinois biology professor said.

Anthony “Tony” Rothering, professor of biology, mathematics and sciences at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, is aware of a recent salmonellosis outbreak in common feeder birds such as pine siskins (songbirds) on which Wild Bird Feeding Institute research consultant Jenna McCullough has reported on in a recent blog.

Salmonellosis is an infection that’s caused by the salmonella bacteria. A salmonella (food poisoning) outbreak “occurred in several parts of the United States in winter and spring 2021,” Cool Green Science said on its website.

Salmonella can spread through concentrations of birds at feeders, Cool Green Science said. Symptoms of salmonellosis in birds include sunken or closed eyes, fluffed up feathers and “unexpectedly lethargic behavior compared to other birds,” McCullough said in a recent blog.

People should contact their state wildlife agency to learn if salmonella is a problem in their areas, Cool Green Science said.

“I’ve heard of some isolated cases in the central Illinois area, but it’s probably really not any more than what we would typically see,” Rothering told Radiant Life. “Really what it comes down to is just proper maintenance of bird feeders.”

Clean regularly

For the health of birds, bird feeders should be regularly emptied and thoroughly cleaned and dried to reduce most of the risk to birds and potentially to humans through transmission of diseases, Rothering said.

A soap/detergent mix would be helpful, Rothering said. “It could also be with a bleach mix; however, at that point, then, you really need to let the feeders sit for probably a week or two so that there’s no harmful chemicals that are passed onto the birds,” said Rothering, who at any given time has around 10 feeders and four or five bird baths at his home. “We try to use, really, as mild a detergent as we can, but is still effective enough.”

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Bird feeders can come in many shapes and sizes, but its important to keep them clean. (Lidia Stawinska/Unsplash)

Frequency of cleaning is dependent on a location’s weather conditions, but for areas in Illinois, feeders should be cleaned once a month.

“If we’re having a lot of rain, then there’s a lot of times that that moisture, especially with heat, can cause the potential for any kind of either bacterial or fungal disease to grow a little faster,” Rothering said. “If the seed gets wet, then most definitely, that should be emptied and disposed of where, hopefully, birds or other animals are not going to get it, and then the feeders cleaned.”

Feed responsibly

Bird seed shouldn’t remain in feeders for long periods because of the increased chance for spoilage, Rothering said.

“It’s always good to buy high-quality seed, and that includes not buying the cheaper varieties that have a lot of fillers in them that birds don’t necessarily eat,” Rothering said. “Based on the type of feeder that you have, it’s good to buy the correct type of seed that would target the birds that would come to those feeders.”

For example, feeders placed on the ground would attract sparrows, cardinals and doves. Many ground-feeding birds will eat cracked corn.

“Cracked corn in other types of feeders that might target like finches and such, that’s a filler and has the potential of being tossed out by the birds or sit in the feeder and then possibly cause spoilage and the potential for the spread of disease,” Rothering said.

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Anthony Rothering, professor of biology at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, shows suet (mixture of beef fat, seeds and apple chunks) that he places in a bird feeder on campus. He suggests that people using suet in bird feeders in the summertime use more heat-resistant types of suet because of the potential for melting. (Tamara Browning)

People should purchase bird supplies from local businesses and visit stores where the individuals are “well-versed” and can give advice on what’s best for their backyards, Rothering said. Online resources also can be good choices, he said.

Project Wild Bird, a study of “feed and feeder preferences of wild birds in the United States and Canada,” offers an online chart listing the feed preferred by wild birds and feeder styles certain birds prefer.

Debunk myths

As Rothering filled bird feeders on the campus of Lincoln Land Community College one afternoon in June, he explained to Radiant Life the reasoning behind the use of certain seeds.

“If you only wanted to put one type of seed out, black oil sunflower is probably the one that’s eaten by the greatest diversity of birds,” Rothering said as he filled a feeder with black oil sunflower seeds. “It’s kind of like when you eat sunflower seeds. It’s the same thing. We eat that soft part that’s in the middle, and that’s what birds like, too. That’s the most nutritious for them.”

Rothering wants to dispel a couple of myths. One myth that some people believe is that birds will starve if people stop feeding them because birds become dependent on being fed.

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Anthony Rothering, professor of biology at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, fills a bird feeder on campus with black oil sunflower seeds. He said black oil sunflower seeds are “eaten by the greatest diversity of birds.” (Tamara Browning)

“Obviously, they’re going to take that free meal, but especially in the summertime, there’s so much natural food available or they can move… They can go somewhere else and find the resources they need,” Rothering said.

People should grow plants in their yards that are native to their areas in order to help draw birds with the insects that live on those plants, Rothering said. As ordinances allow, he encourages people “to let your lawn go a little natural and to have what we would think of as weeds” or maybe have a part of their yard more natural with native plants.

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Shown are the varieties of bird feeders on the campus of Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois. (Tamara Browning)

“There’s a lot of birds that we don’t think of as eating insects because they come to bird feeders, like cardinals and blue jays and the sparrow varieties and such,” Rothering said. “However, when birds are migrating and when birds are nesting, they depend very, very heavily on insects, not only for themselves but for feeding their young during the nesting season.”

Some people mistakenly believe that birds will be prevented from migrating if people feed them through the winter.

“When you’re feeding them, you’re helping them survive to the point in time when that innate drive kicks in so they migrate,” Rothering said. “If you’re feeding them responsibly, just keeping the feeders clean…then it definitely is not doing them harm in keeping them from migrating.”

Tamara Browning
Tamara Browning