Home Environment and health New study: bird feeders can be disease risk

New study: bird feeders can be disease risk

Starling nibbling at the coconut
Starling nibbling at the coconut

Close contact with other birds can increase disease unless cleaned regularly

Many of us feed birds in winter, but a new study has claimed it can put our feathered friends at risk if we don’t wash feeders regularly.

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) looked at 25 years of data on wild bird health threats and concluded garden feeding could promote transmission of some diseases.

Almost half of UK households put out seeds, nuts and fat balls on tables and feeders. It also improves people’s well being and interest in nature.

Contact with other species

However, garden feeders can encourage birds to repeatedly congregate in the same place, bringing them into contact with other species which they would not otherwise interact with in normal circumstances.

The risk of disease can be increased if the tables and feeding stations are not kept clean, so stale food, food waste and droppings accumulate.

The study, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, used information on birds visiting gardens and observations of disease from the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch scheme.

Tracking 3 common diseases

It combined information from the large-scale surveillance scheme with post-mortem examinations of birds, to track three common diseases.

Two of the diseases had emerged recently, causing epidemics affecting large numbers of birds, while a third, previously common, condition had dwindled to very low levels.

Advice to lessen risks

As the three diseases are passed on differently, tracking how could help develop advice that allows us to feed birds without putting them at risk.

You can lessen risks to wildlife by doing the following:

  • Offer a variety of food from reputable sources
  • Feed in moderation, so that feeders are emptied every 1-2 days
  • Regularly clean bird feeders (weekly)
  • Move feeding sites to avoid waste food and droppings building up in one place.

Want to read the full paper? Visit https://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/disease_review_paper_0.pdf

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Mandy Watson is a freelance journalist and an incurable plantaholic. MandyCanUDigIt grew from the tiny seed of a Twitter account into the rainforest of information you see before you. Gardening columnist for the Sunderland Echo, Shields Gazette and Hartlepool Mail and editor of the Teesdale Mercury Magazine. Attracted by anything rebellious, exotic and nerdy, even after all these years. Passionate about northern England and gardens everywhere. Falls over a lot.


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