Get the facts on backyard bird feeding - BC SPCA
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Get the facts on backyard bird feeding

May 22, 2024

The BC SPCA generally doesn’t recommend feeding wildlife – but what about bird feeders? Backyard bird feeding is the most widespread and popular form of human-wildlife interaction worldwide – but did you know that bird feeders are a common place for birds to get sick?

Wild ARC commonly admits birds suffering from conjunctivitis – an eye infection which can be spread between birds at feeders. In 2021, an outbreak of Salmonella resulted in many sick pine siskins in the Lower Mainland and south Vancouver Island. The disease is easily spread when birds come together at bird feeders. Wild ARC saw more than 50 pine siskins admitted that winter, with many showing signs of disease but few surviving due to the severity of their condition. In 2022, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) swept across the country, prompting the BC SPCA to call for bird feeders to be temporarily removed.

Get the facts on backyard bird feeding, and what you can do to keep birds safe.

Grosbeak bird sits at bottom of bird feeder
Photo credit: Stephanie Watson

Clean your feeder

Stay aware of local disease outbreaks, and remove your bird feeders during periods of risk. From conjunctivitis and salmonella to highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), bird feeders are a common place for the spread of disease. 

Prevent disease outbreaks by regularly cleaning your feeder:

  1. Discard any remaining seed before cleaning
  2. Wash feeder with soap and water – use a bottle brush for small spaces
  3. Wash feeder again with a 10% bleach solution for three minutes
  4. Rinse and air-dry completely
  5. Fill with fresh seed
  6. Repeat steps 1-5 every two weeks

Except for liquid feeders (e.g. hummingbird nectar feeders), the BC SPCA recommends only providing bird feeders in winter between October and March. In the spring and summer months, there is lots of natural food for birds. Plus, you can attract birds naturally with bird-friendly native plants.

Make a safe spot

Bird feeders can increase the risk of window strikes, predation, and conflicts with rodents and other wildlife attracted to the feeders. Keep birds safe:

Remember that backyard bird feeders can also attract cats – you can prevent problems by keeping your cat indoors, supervising outdoor time or buying a cat bib or Birdsbesafe collar cover, and encouraging your neighbours to do the same.

Downy woodpecker and nuthatch cling to sides of seed bird feeder

For your seed and suet feeders, wildlife-proof your feeder, or look to purchase models that are designed this way. Prevent rodent problems by having a dish to collect fallen seed, and make sure to regularly clean up spilled seeds.

Consult your local bird feed or nature store to determine the right feed for the season and the species.

If you find a sick bird

If you see sick birds at your feeder or in the area, immediately remove your bird feeders and keep them down for at least one to two weeks before putting them back up clean and full of fresh seed. Sick birds may appear lethargic, unusually “fluffed up”, and may show signs of irritation around the eyes, including redness, crustiness or swelling. Contact your local wildlife rehabilitation centre or the BC SPCA Animal Helpline at 1-855-622-7722 for advice.

Sick pine siskin in care at Wild ARC
Sick pine siskin treated for disease at Wild ARC

Hummingbird feeders

Liquid hummingbird feeders do not attract rodents and other wildlife, but they can attract ants and other insects, and can cause deadly fungal or bacterial infections if not cleaned thoroughly and regularly, or if the nectar is prepared improperly. Hummingbird feeders also have special considerations for the winter. Learn more about how to safely feed hummingbirds.

Hummingbird at feeder
Photo by Debbie Matthews

Ducks, geese, swans and gulls

Never feed birds like ducks, geese, swans, and gulls at parks, beaches or other areas. Some parks and municipalities have bylaws against feeding birds by hand (e.g., bread, rice and other human food) because it is so harmful for the birds. It causes them to suffer from malnutrition, bone deformation and death, creates conflict with humans, and contributes to environmental degradation and water pollution. The BC SPCA recommends parks and municipalities strongly discourage feeding through education, bylaws and enforcement.

Woodpeckers at suet feeder
Photo credit: Bodhi Drope

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