Sick Birds at Feeders

Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Bird feeding certainly brings us joy and can be of great benefit to the birds who visit our feeders, but with the good can come the bad & the ugly - and a sick bird at your feeders is most definitely the latter. In this blog we will touch on common illnesses seen in backyard birds, signs to watch for at your feeders and what to do if you see a sick bird, and how to prevent the spread of these illnesses in your yard. 

Female House Finch with signs of illness. Photo by Ramon Delgado

While there are numerous maladies that can affect birds, the ones most commonly found in backyard birds are House Finch Eye Disease, Avian Pox, Trichomoniasis, and Salmonellosis. Here is some basic information on these common illnesses:

House Finch Eye Disease
(or Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis), is a highly contagious respiratory disease that affects some wild & domestic bird species. Infected birds will often have runny, crusty, swollen, or red eyes, and in severe cases (like the bird in the photo above) the eyes can become swollen shut or crusted over, leaving the bird blind. These symptoms can also cause an infected bird to have trouble eating, and will they typically spend more time than usual at feeders or on the ground trying to find seeds. House Finch Eye Disease has been reported in most of eastern North America, as far north as Quebec, as far south as Florida, and as far west as California. For more in-depth information on House Finch Eye Disease, click here

Avian Pox is a virus that often causes wart-like growths on the skin, typically the face and feet (see photo below). Because Avian Pox affects areas of the body like the face & feet, it can hinder breathing and decrease mobility, making the infected bird more vulnerable to predators. Avian Pox symptoms can range from mild to severe, resulting in a high mortality rate. 

Trichomoniasis is an infectious disease caused by a microscopic parasite that affects multiple birds species including doves & pigeons, raptors, finches, and more. The parasite inhabits the upper digestive tract, typically the esophagus and crop, but can also infect various parts of the body including the lungs, air sacs, and sinuses. Clinical signs of Trichomoniasis include drooling, difficulty swallowing, laboured breathing, and some may have a swollen neck. 

Salmonellosis is a highly contagious zoonotic (can be passed from animal to human) bacterial infection that can infect all bird species, but tends to have higher mortality rate in finch species who flock in large numbers (Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, etc). Salmonellosis settles in the intestinal lining and causes gut damage (causing digestive issues like diarrhea), and can travel to the brain and joints. Some signs of Salmonellosis in birds include constant ruffled feathers and lethargy. 

It is nearly impossible to diagnose these illnesses by sight alone (with the exception of maybe Avian Pox) as many have similar symptoms as stated above. These symptoms include difficulty flying, feeding, or drinking, lethargy, crusty or runny eyes, abnormal lumps or lesions on the skin, laboured breathing, a "puffed" or hunched appearance, and an apparent lack of fear when approached. If you notice any of these symptoms or have a bird that just isn't acting quite right in your yard, it's best to err on the side of caution and follow the steps below. 

Chipping Sparrow with Avian Pox. Photo by Cathy Hunter

What do I do if I see a sick bird?

  1. If you are able to approach and capture the bird, do so and place in a well-ventilated box. Place the box in a dark and quite room. Do not give the bird food or water at this time. Sick or injured birds can easily aspirate. Contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitation facility immediately. For a list of facilities in Ontario, click here

  2. Take down all feeders and birdbaths and discard remaining food immediately - even if you didn't see the bird at your feeders. 

  3. Many illnesses are contracted through bird-to-bird contact, or through contaminated surfaces. Because of this, it is extremely important to thoroughly clean and disinfect all feeders, birdbaths, and feeding equipment. First you will need to thoroughly clean your feeders with a brush to remove any visible dirt or mold. Once you are finished the initial cleaning, submerge the feeders in a 10% bleach solution for a minimum of 10 minutes, this acts as a disinfectant and also helps to loosen any grime build-up; scrub feeders again with brush & rinse thoroughly for at least 15 seconds in warm water. For in-depth cleaning and disinfecting instructions, click here

  4. It is important to discontinue use of all feeders and birdbaths for a minimum of two weeks to help discourage birds coming to your yard and further spreading the illness. Some bacteria such as salmonella can survive in wet and warm areas for months. 

  5. When the quarantine period is over and your feeders are back up, be sure to keep a close eye on the birds visiting them. If there is any sign of illness, repeat the process above and keep feeders down for a longer period of time.

* Found a dead bird in your yard? Finding dead bird in your yard or on the deck doesn't necessarily mean it was sick. If there are no visible signs of illness, the cause of death could have been a cat attack, previous injury, natural cause, or a window strike. If you're unsure of how the bird died, it's best to follow through with disinfecting all feeders and bird baths just in case. 

American Goldfinch showing signs of conjunctivitis

How can I prevent birds from getting sick in my yard?
Following the simple steps listed here can make a big difference in the health of the wild birds that visit our feeders and bird baths. 

  • Follow a strict cleaning and disinfecting schedule. Minimum once per month, but as often as possible. Be sure to also clean your bird feeding stations and the area around them. Use a broom, shovel, or shop vacuum to help get rid of food waste and droppings. To further reduce the amount of waste on the ground, offer WBU No-Mess Blend and other no or low mess options like seed cylinders and suet. 
  • Avoid crowding. Birds don't know how to social distance and can't wear masks, so helping them keep their distance is a good way to minimize the risk of spreading illnesses. Increasing the amount of feeders available in your yard will allow birds to spread out and reduce contact with each other. Crowding also causes stress which makes birds more susceptible to disease.
  • Pay close attention to your feeders and the birds visiting them. Even with a strict cleaning regiment in place, birds can become infected from other sources and may still visit your feeders. If you notice a sick bird at any time - even if you just disinfected your feeders - it's time to take them down and start all over again. 

Sure, cleaning feeders is the least enjoyable part of the hobby - and it can even be kind of gross. But knowing that we are helping keep our struggling wild bird populations healthy is totally worth the once-per-month bird poop scrubbing. 😊

Enjoy spring & happy trails!
- Shayna