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chaffinch sketchbook drawing Hannah Longmuir

We really love putting food out for the birds. Pig helps me scoop the peanuts and sunflower hearts and roll lovely round fat balls into the feeders.  He’s very serious about carrying them back out to the garden without spilling any seed.  Ross gave me a window feeder for my birthday and it has been so lovely having blue tits, great tits, chaffinches, nuthatches, robins and coal tits peeking into the living room while we are in there playing.  I feel quite a sense of responsibility for our feathered neighbours.  When the sparrowhawk visits the feeders I hope they don’t hold me accountable for luring them there with tasty treats only to be terrorised by a hungry bird of prey.

We’ve had a poorly great tit in the garden this week.  The poor thing was wretched.  I think it had a condition called trichomonosis which affects the digestive system.  Symptoms include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • fluffed up plumage
  • regurgitating food
  • slow, laboured breathing
  • most common in finches, pigeons and doves

It is transmitted via saliva, often during the breeding season when adult birds are feeding the young.  Unfortunately once a bird is visibly sick there’s nothing to be done. Our hearts were very heavy watching such a beautiful bird struggling.  I decided to do some research about feeder-hygiene to make sure we are doing right by our garden population.  This is what I learnt:

Garden Bird Diseases

Trichomonosis is of no health risk to humans but there are other common garden bird ailments that might be.  E-coli and salmonella are two of those.  Although it is extremely unlikely that they will be infectious to humans it is important to always wear gloves and then wash your hands really well when handling feeders or poorly birds.  Don’t bring the feeders into the house to clean.

You should regularly clean your feeders

The best way to keep your feathered friends healthy is to keep feeding stations and feeders clean.  If food hasn’t been used within a few days it should be discarded (put smaller quantities out next time to avoid wastage).  Feeders, bird tables and bird baths should be cleaned using warm, soapy water.  You can also use a bird-safe disinfectant (approx a 5% disinfectant solution).  The RSPB shop has a kit for cleaning feeders and bird tables.  I’ve just ordered myself the long brush as I find it really tricky to clean inside the sunflower hearts feeder.  I’m determined to be better at cleaning the feeders now.  If you put food out for ground feeding birds it is best to remove it if it hasn’t been gobbled up that day as it will attract rodents after dusk.

Rotate the positions of the feeders

It is good practice to move feeders every so often to prevent a build up of contamination on the ground underneath them.

If you do have a poorly bird in the garden you should:

immediately empty and clean the feeders.  Birds suffering from trichomonosis often spit out food and their saliva can contaminate the food in the feeder.  You might want to wait to put food out again until there’s no sign of a poorly bird in the garden.  That will force the feeding population to disperse (diseases are most common when there is a high concentration of birds at a feeding station).  I’ve not put food out for a few days now but I think I am safe to do so again now.

Birds like routine

Especially in the winter, when days are short and cold and feeding time is valuable, it is helpful to stick to a routine of putting food out so that the birds know when to visit your garden.  They feed most actively in the morning and just before dusk.

You should adjust the types of food you provide depending on the time of year

In the autumn and winter, birds need high-energy, high-fat foods for survival.  Don’t waste their time with low-quality foods and scraps.

In the spring and summer aim for high protein foods to help them through their moult.  Be cautious of putting out loose peanuts in the breeding season as they can be too chunky for nestlings and cause them to choke.  If you do put out peanuts make sure they are in good mesh feeders.  Other ideas for foods include: black sunflower seeds, pinhead oatmeal, soaked sultanas, raisins and currants, mild grated cheese, mealworms, waxworms, mixes for insectivorous birds, good seed mixtures without loose peanuts, soft apples, pears, grapes and bananas.  If a temporary food shortage occurs – because of unusual weather – during the breeding season, the food available on a bird table can make a big difference to the survival of the young.  You can read more about bird food on the RSPB website.

I’m feeling quite inspired to be a good bird-friend this year.  I’m going to run a tight ship!

The Bird Feeder card by Hannah Longmuir

The Bird Feeder blank card

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