Eco Talk: What the Spread of Avian Flu Means for Your Bird Feeder | Lifestyles


Judy Wright Citizen Special

Feeding wild birds is a passive hobby that connects us to nature and is shared by many people, regardless of age. While some people who feed birds do so year-round, others enjoy the activity seasonally.

Many of our migratory songbirds return. For me, seeing red-winged blackbirds is the first sign of spring. I also hear male cardinals singing their mating song almost every morning, so I know spring is just around the corner!

Another sign of spring is the large flocks of Canada geese and snow geese on the lakes and in the cornfields. Unfortunately, in this migration season, these weary travelers might take with them and leave behind the threat of highly pathogenic avian influenza. HPAI is primarily carried by waterfowl, but is easily transmitted to highly susceptible domestic poultry.

Avian flu can be highly contagious in wild and domestic birds. Waterfowl, both domestic and wild, act as reservoirs of infection and often show no symptoms. Wild waterfowl carry low pathogenic forms of the virus which mutate into a highly pathogenic form, which then spreads rapidly to other birds. The virus can sicken and even kill some species of domestic birds, including chickens, ducks and turkeys.

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Last month I discussed HPAI and its contagion and death for domestic poultry flocks, regardless of flock size. As of March 18, New York had three cases of HPAI found in backyard poultry flocks that resulted in the death of 268 birds. All commercial poultry operations have rigorous biosecurity measures in place to protect their poultry operation.

Research has shown that wild roosting and songbird populations can carry HPAI, especially if they share nesting and foraging areas with infected wild waterfowl. For those who feed wild birds and also have poultry at home or work with poultry, it is strongly recommended that they remove their bird feeders until the threat of disease has passed. For those of us who don’t have poultry, we can continue to feed our wild bird friends.

It is still unclear how long HPAI will pose a threat; now is the greatest chance to spread HPAI. As with many viruses, it is likely that the number of cases will decrease with the warmer temperatures that summer brings. However, this fall, with the onset of southerly migration of waterfowl, the number of HPAI detections may increase.

For those with hobby or backyard poultry flocks, it is now important to dismantle bird feeders to protect your flock. Additionally, keeping flocks away from wild birds, especially waterfowl, will provide protection, as will allowing only those responsible for the care of the poultry access to the barn.

Footwear hygiene is also essential before entering a domestic poultry house. Remember: this disease is transmitted through the saliva and respiratory secretions of an infected bird, as well as through its droppings. Movement of the virus through shoes in poultry houses can occur when the shoes are contaminated. To avoid this source of contamination, if you have passed through an area where wild birds have visited, put on clean clothes and shoes before entering the coop.

The United States has the most powerful AI surveillance program in the world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to work with partners to actively search commercial poultry farms, live bird markets, and migratory wild bird populations for the disease in an effort to slow and hopefully to stop its spread.

Human cases of bird flu are rare, but care should be taken if you find a sick or dead bird. Cornell Cooperative Extension offices are available to provide resources and referrals if you observe unusual deaths and illnesses in wild and domestic birds.

For those of us who continue to feed our barnyard friends, take the time to clean feeders to prevent the spread of HPAI and other diseases. Do this by soaking or scrubbing with a diluted bleach solution, rinsing thoroughly and allowing to dry before adding birdseed. If feeders have visible debris, scrub thoroughly to remove debris before cleaning. Remember that prevention is the key to avoiding the spread of disease and feeders should be cleaned regularly.

Understanding the basics of HPAI and bird nutrition will allow you to continue enjoying our wild feathered friends. Be sure to offer them seeds and not bread, as there is little nutritional value in bread for birds. Let’s continue to enjoy the relationship we have with backyard birds by providing them with clean, dry seed and a safe environment.

Judy Wright is the senior agricultural specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Seneca County. For more information, visit or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.


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