Garden Bird Feeders Spread Disease : Fact or Fiction?

I have been reading a lot lately about cleaning and washing bird feeders. Is it really necessary? Surely I fill them with seed, the birds come, they take the seed then I refill – simple! Now I am told that bird feeders spread disease. So, what are the dangers of bird feeders and should I worry if I touched dried bird poop?

Garden bird feeders do spread disease – FACT. Actually, it is the birds themselves who carry the disease. A well used bird feeders can be a breeding ground for the bird diseases to be passed on to other birds. A big concern is that there are bird diseases that humans can catch. In this post I am going to look into and share what I found out about diseases spread by birds and how they could affect us.

Which Diseases Do Wild Garden Birds Carry?

I am not an expert in this field but I feel it is important that you know about some of the basics. It might just make you wash your hands more thoroughly after refilling your feeders!

Most birds carry a disease or condition of some kind. There are over 60 types of bird disease, according to research. Here are some of the most common types of disease found in wild birds of the UK. These are also common in birds in other continents, as well as others.

Salmonella

This is something that most of us have heard of already. It is a nasty disease that humans can contract. Salmonellosis is probably the most common disease found in flocking, feeding birds. Salmonella bacteria attack the intestines, causing inflammation and ulcers. Birds mostly affected by salmonella are Green Finches, Chaffinches and House Sparrows. This disease is one that can be quickly spread at crowded bird feeders. Food contaminated by droppings from infected birds is one of the main causes.

Avian Pox

Avian Pox is a nasty viral disease that causes lesions on parts of a bird’s body with no feathers; legs, feet, eyes and beak, for example. Great Tits appear to suffer this condition more than other common garden birds. Others that also seem to suffer include Dunnocks, Blue Tits and Wood Pigeons.

This can be fatal in some cases, as a knock on effect of sores around the eyes can prevent a bird from finding much needed food. If this happens they may starve to death. The virus is passed from bird to bird through direct contact. It can also be transferred by insect bites, such as when a mosquito has fed on the blood of an infected bird then moves to another.

Trichomoniasis

Never heard of this one but many Pigeons have. Trichomoniasis is a parasitic infection, usually affecting Pigeons and Doves. It may not be obvious that a bird carries this disease as there may be no symptoms until the time of death. However, in some cases there is a build up of lesions and mucus-like inflammation in the mouth and oesophagus. This can prevent a bird from swallowing and they cannot eat.

Aspergillosis

This one is a fungal infection that most birds have probably come across at some point. It mainly affects birds on an all seed diet. Causes of this disease can be found in wet or damp seed mix, nesting material or soil to name a few.

The main symptoms are development of bronchitis and pneumonia. Most healthy birds can fight this off but many will eventually die, although they will continue to feed on the seed you put out, potentially infecting other birds.

Mites, Lice and Fleas

Of course, with most animals there also ticks, mites and lice. They are almost unavoidable in the animal world and birds are no different. I often heard people say that Pigeons are like rats with wings – scavenging things that carry disease.

The fact is that most birds will carry mites or lice and despite grooming and bathing, they will never be rid of them. Some live in feathers, some under feathers on the skin. Some suck blood and spread disease. Pigeons are most associated with fleas and mites.

Wild Bird Diseases Can Be Transmitted To Humans

Now that we have the slightly technical bit out of the way. Let me tell you about whether us humans need to worry about the diseases we might encounter at our bird feeders. The heading above kind of confirms what we already thought.

How Are Bird Diseases Passed To Humans?

There are a number of ways in which birds diseases is transmitted to humans. Here are some of them and things we can do to avoid it happening.

Direct Contact

The easiest way of contracting a disease or bacteria from a bird is through direct contact with a poorly bird. If you see a dead or injured bird you may want to handle it to help in some way. Be very careful about how you do this and make sure you take precautions. Then, ensure you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.

Clearly, the best advice I can give is to not touch a bird in the first place. Our garden birds are beautiful little things and getting up close to them can give us an enormous sense of well being and excitement. If you are lucky enough to be able to hand feed a bird, or one comes into your home to feed, wash your hands and wash the area they go. Don’t take a chance on doing it later; bacteria spread rapidly and it only takes one touch to spread the disease.

Bird Feeders

How busy are your bird feeders? At the moment I have a handful of Tits and Gold Finches visiting, along with a Robin or two. With a small number of birds at my feeders I am not inundated with bird poop to clean away. Your’s might be different and any bird bath you have might also be filled with the stuff.

Bird feeders are a thriving reservoir of disease and bacteria, even from the most beautiful of garden birds. It is therefore important that we keep our feeders in a healthy condition – not only for the birds but for us as well. When we visit our feeders to refill them we should be checking them for cleanliness and overall condition.

Regular cleaning of bird feeders is an important part of garden birding. This is why they should be located in a place where you can reach them easily. It may be that some seed is wasted because it hasn’t been eaten over time. It is better to empty a feeder, clean it and refill it than leaving old, damp, infected seed out.

For more information on keeping bird baths clean (also covering red algae), read my other post here – Red Algae In Your Bird Bath? This Is What To Do.

Droppings

Help! I touched dried bird poo! This is not something I have actually ever shouted out but… I have been cleaning my car in the past and used my thumb nail to scrape off some dried on bird poop. I am thinking I am not alone here? I have been tidying in the garden and brushed away some dried droppings with my hand too. There have been some huge pigeon droppings in my garden, I can tell you!

There is a further problem with dried bird droppings, especially pigeon droppings. They are usually on the ground, on ledges or cars, drying in the sun. When they dry out they are very easily broken up and when this happens they turn into a powder. This powder is blown around in the air and can easily be inhaled by us. This is when bacteria and viruses find a way in and we become ill. Be careful around bird droppings and avoid close contact if you can.

Is Bird Poop Toxic To Humans?

Yes it is! The basic fact here is that when any animal, bird or human poops, it is getting rid of the things the body doesn’t want or need. The idea is that we should not be reintroducing these things into the body, as it can make the host very ill.

If you are outside and get pooped on by above it will be messy and yucky. As long as it is on the outside of our skin it shouldn’t be of concern, as long as it is washed off thoroughly as soon as possible. If bird poop is allowed to remain on our skin for a short time, there should not be any lasting effect, other than embarrassment or shame!

If bird poop is allowed to remain on our skin for a short time, there should not be any lasting effect, other than embarrassment or shame!

The danger comes when bird poop finds its way to a cut or break in the skin. It should never be allow to come into contact with our eye, mouths or ears either. Bird poop contains bacteria and parasitic organisms that can be very harmful to us.

Safe Disinfectant For Bird Feeders

If we are serious about keeping our bird feeders clean, we should be using something other than just water. As we love our little feathered visitors, we should probably use something bird-friendly too. Choosing a safe disinfectant for a bird feeder is quite important because we don’t want to hurt or kill the birds we’re trying to protect.

Actually, boiling water and a mild soap will probably be just as effective as manufactured disinfectant products. In other areas of our lives we often use boiling water as a means to kill germs and bacteria. I have heard of people having good success with a stiff brush and boiling water. It depends on how much effort you are willing to put into this.

There are purpose made disinfectant products, branded and directed to the bird feeding community. You don’t have to buy these, as other disinfectant products can be just as good. They will also be multi-purpose too, if you have a rabbit hutch or Guinea Pig enclosure.

Some of the most popular disinfectants people use on their bird feeders are by more reputable and trusted brands, such as Johnsons Clean ‘N’ Safe Bird Table Disinfectant. These are often found at garden centres or pet stores.

These places wouldn’t sell anything of this kind that will harm pets or wildlife. Something to look out for is a marking that states the product kills bird flu virus (H5NI), or other strains of virus.

Another is Inspired – Bird Feeder Cleaner and Sanitiser. This has some very good reviews from happy customers on Amazon.

For an all-round disinfectant you could go for something like Jeyes Fluid, available at Amazon here.

It can be a little more expensive, depending on where you get it. Also remember that many of these products have a strong smell.

This may mean the birds will give it a while before returning, allowing the smell to subside first.

What Diseases Can You Get From Wild Birds?

There are bird diseases humans can catch, salmonella probably being the most well known. In this section I will go through some of the commonly known bird diseases that we are most at risk from. This risk is greatly reduced if we take the necessary steps of cleaning ourselves and our feeders.

  • Histoplasmosis: caught from fungus in dried bird dropping, this is a respiratory disease.
  • Salmonellosis: traced back to rats, pigeons, sparrows and starlings, this often occurs as “food poisoning”.
  • E.coli: one of the most common infections caused by an enteric bacteria.
  • Cryptococcosis: caused by yeast found in the intestinal tract of pigeons and starlings. The illness often begins as a pulmonary disease and may later affect the central nervous system.
  • Candidiasis: a yeast or fungus infection that can be spread by pigeons. The disease affects the skin, mouth, respiratory system, intestines and urogenital tract.
  • St. Louis Encephalitis, an inflammation of the nervous system, usually causes drowsiness, headaches and fever. It may even result in paralysis, coma or death. The disease is spread by mosquitoes which have fed on infected house sparrows, pigeons and house finches carrying the Group B virus responsible for St. Louis encephalitis.
source: Pure Air Control Services Inc.

Diseases Caused By Pigeon Droppings And Feathers

Pigeon droppings are unsightly and are a pain in the a** for local authorities. Pigeon droppings are acidic. This means they erode metal and stone work. The main diseases associated with pigeons are:

  • E. coli
  • St. Louis encephalitis
  • Histoplasmosis
  • Candidiasis
  • Salmonellosis

As for their feathers, pigeons are known carriers of fleas and mites. These carry their own bacteria and risk to us, as well as transferring the pigeon’s infections.

Conclusion

Just like any animal, birds carry diseases. Often we are not helping them by providing a breeding ground for such disease and bacteria – garden feeders.

We need to keep our bird feeders clean for both the birds sake and for our. There are a number of bird diseases humans can catch but if we take the right precautions the risks are minimised.

Never touch bird droppings and, if you can help it, don’t touch a wild bird. If you do, wash your hands thoroughly!

Additional Points

House Sparrow Diseases in the above post I have covered a range of diseases carried by our common wild garden birds. House Sparrows are mainly associated with salmonella and St. Louis encephalitis. You can see a fuller explanation above.