How to Know if You Should Dismantle Your Bird Feeder Amid an Avian Flu Outbreak

There’s good news for people who like to attract wild birds to their yard all year round.

As dangerous as the H5N1 strain of bird flu is to backyard poultry, there’s no reason most Maine residents should stop feeding songbirds.

There has been confusion among bird lovers when it comes to maintaining their feeders following outbreaks of the highly contagious strain of bird flu that has emerged across the state. Here in Maine, unless a feeder is near a backyard flock, experts advise there’s no reason to stop feeding wild songbirds.

More than 700 domestic birds have been killed in the state so far – either directly by bird flu or by being humanely euthanized to prevent its spread – and the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Maine Forests classifies the disease risk level in Maine as high.

One of the ways to prevent the spread of the disease is to maintain strict hygiene practices around domestic flocks. At the start of outbreaks, some areas outside of Maine recommended stopping the feeding of wild birds altogether to prevent them from congregating in flocks and potentially infecting each other.

“Different states saying different things made it confusing,” said Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox. “An alert came out of a Midwestern state that really got the ball rolling by removing feeders.”

This alert came from an area that is home to a large raptor rescue and rehabilitation reserve, according to Hitchcox.

“It made sense for this region,” he said. “Raptors eat things like ducks which are the true carriers of the disease.”

Ducks, especially mallards, are often opportunists at bird feeders where they can gobble up any spilled food that ends up on the ground.

But unless you’re keeping a flock of backyard poultry, there’s no reason to dismantle a bird feeder in Maine.

“We follow the science,” he said. “Bird flu is found and transmitted primarily by ducks and there are really no known cases of it occurring in our food birds.”

The main concern with songbirds is the very rare possibility of an individual infecting a member of a backyard flock, according to Cornell University’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The key is to keep songbirds away from poultry, rather than away from each other.

Backyard poultry keepers need to ensure that their domestic birds have food and water inaccessible to wild birds. Backyard birds should be confined to areas away from their wild counterparts.

“We recognize that if someone has domestic fowl, you need to keep them indoors and stop feeding wild birds,” Hitchcox said. “It’s the best way to protect domestic birds.”

No wild bird in Maine will starve if someone knocks down their feeders, Hitchcox said. In fact, having a bird feeder is more about bringing the birds closer to observe them than helping them.

“Even in the worst winters, birds only use feeders to supplement 20% of what they get in the wild,” he said. “Birdseed really isn’t their favorite food, especially during nesting season when they need protein-rich foods like worms or caterpillars.”

For those who feed birds, Hitchox said it’s important to keep feeders clean because there have been reports of avian conjunctivitis in Maine.

“It’s a direct result of people not cleaning their feeders,” he said. “It is transmitted among wild birds and keeping feeders and floors clean is one way to prevent it.”

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