Friday, January 1, 2010

Winter Bird Feeding...Avoiding Problems

Bird feeding is a decidedly easy hobby, but it's not free of potential pitfalls or problems.  Below are a couple of the more common problems new bird feeding hobbyists may encounter and some simple remedies for fixing or avoiding these situations.  Feel free to share your solutions to these and other situations in the comment section below.

Creating a mess
Its true.  Birds are not neat or clean eaters.  One of the inevitable situations many bird feeding stations develop is the "mess" the birds make under or around the bird feeders.  Most of the mess consists of seed shells, spilled seed and some bird droppings.  Depending on the location of your bird feeders, this mess may be tolerable and managed with little effort.

If the aforementioned mess is present in any quantity on your deck or patio, it may be a bit of an issue.  Frequent cleaning of these areas is necessary to improve appearance and stop the mess from coming indoors on your or your pet's feet.  A simple solution is to place feeders in the lawn or a flower or garden bed where the appearance of shelled seeds and bird droppings is unlikely to be noticed.  These areas will still need to be periodically "cleaned", but it requires far less attention and effort to do so as a simple raking or mowing under the feeders is usually enough to disburse any accumulation of waste material under the feeders.  If snow is present throughout the winter, shoveling clean snow on top of the waste material is quick fix for covering up the mess until a thorough cleaning can be accomplished.

If there is an abundance of spilled seed under the feeder, be sure that you are filling your feeders with the appropriate seed.  Remember...hanging or elevated feeders work best with one seed type, usually black-oil sunflower.  Seed mixes in these feeders often result in an extraordinary mess from the birds sifting through the seed mix to get to their favorite seed type.  Some seeds, like thistle, need specially-designed feeders to disburse the seed properly without a mess.

One more simple solution is to purchase feeders with seed trays (see photo above right) to catch some of the mess or set up a separate seed catcher under the feeders to keep the mess under the feeders contained.  These items need to be cleaned frequently due to the concentrated accumulation of material which may contribute to fungal growth or disease transmission.

Avoid Disease Transmission
Any area frequented by a high volume of organisms is a potential breeding ground for disease.  We know the importance of sanitation in restaurants and our own kitchens, but these same principles are rarely applied to the buffet line we offer to the birds in our yards.  Very simply, clean feeders and food will prevent birds from becoming ill.  Here are couple things to remember:
  • Never offer moldy or rancid food at your feeding station
  • Keep feeding stations clear of excessive waste material
  • Spread feeders out to avoid concentrated accumulations of waste and reduce stress from competition among individual birds
  • Clean feeders periodically with a 10% bleach solution and allow to air dry completely before refilling

Goldfinch exhibiting symptoms of Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis

If the above recommendations are performed, your birds will feed with very little chance of contracting illness from your station or one another.  There are circumstances in which diseased birds do find your station and present a hazard to the other visitors regardless of your cleaning habits.  One of the most common instances of disease during winter feeding is Mycoplasmal conjunctivitisRead a previous post about conjunctivitis here.  If birds with symptoms appear at your feeders, take the feeders down, clean them, and don't start feeding until all birds have disbursed from your feeding station.

Predators
Bird feeders are largely intended for songbirds, but they eventually become visited by a predator or two looking to make a meal from your seed-loving visitors.  Hawks and cats are two of the mostly likely culprits for upsetting a happy feeding station.  Continued and repeated visits by predators, perceived or otherwise, will cause birds to stop visiting. 

Keep cats indoors and encourage neighbors to do the same.  Reduce hiding places where cats can ambush feeding stations.  House cats and feral cats kill more birds than any other predator.  This needless threat is easily avoidable with due diligence on all of our part.

Hawks are a natural part of the landscape and they will inevitably make a visit to your feeding station to make a suprise attack.  For some folks, this will happen once or twice a year, and its quite thrilling and interesting to observe.  For others, it can become a consistent problem if the hawk is repeatedly successful at grabbing a meal.  Reduce songbird mortality by predation by placing feeders within 10-20 feet of cover.  Your birds will have an opportunity to get away, and the hawk will become less likely to make an easy meal every time they visit your yard.

Cooper's Hawk sitting on my birdfeeding station

For more information and solutions to common birdfeeding problems, check out the following resources:
Happy bird feeding!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

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