Bird Flu – Should You Feed Backyard Birds?

Bird Flu: should you feed backyard birds

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More and more reports are popping up from around the US in 2022 with birds being affected by the H5N1 strain of the virus. One of the most commonly affected birds in this outbreak is the Canada goose, but several other species, including the mallard, blue-winged teal, and the great horned owl have all been affected.

This deadly virus strikes fear into the hearts of bird lovers around the world but is there anything we can do to stop it, and is it dangerous to humans?

What is Bird Flu?

What is bird flu?

Bird flu is a type of influenza virus, of which there are four main types; A, B, C, and D. Bird flu, sometimes called avian flu, is an A type of this virus that commonly affects birds. While it is possible for humans and mammals to become infected, this is rare.

The disconcerting thing about bird flu is that there are several different strains. With the current 2022 outbreak, we are looking at the H5N1 strain. The strains are classified by their ability to cause severe disease and are made up of two antigens called haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase(N).

There are two main types, including H5 and H7 that are of more serious concern. The following have been identified in recent outbreaks.

  • H5N1 – this subtype has been detected in the US and contains an assortment of genes from the Eurasian HPAI H5 viruses as well as from the LPAI viruses that already existed in North America. As far as scientists are aware, there is little risk to humans from this strain.
  • H7N6 – one of the 9 subtypes of H7 variants of the virus.
  • H7N9 – this virus was first picked in China in 2013, and while there were some cases of human infection, it is again, uncommon.
  • H5N8 – this is a type of Eurasian strain of the virus but was found in birds on the west coast of the USA back in 2014. Since then, further cases have been detected in Indiana in 2016.

The main types of birds that are at risk of bird flu include raptors, waterfowl and poultry. Most commonly the birds are infected when they eat infected prey, and it’s possible for an entire colony to be wiped out from the virus. The 2022 outbreak has had severe implications for poultry farmers.

What are the Common Symptoms in Birds?

Common symptoms of avian influenza in Birds?

Birds that are infected with the HPAI virus may display one or many of several symptoms. If you see a sick bird and they have any of the following symptoms, there is a chance that they have HPAI.

  • Swelling in the head, eyes, or neck
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficult breathing including gasping or coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Appearing lethargic or not moving
  • Tremors or nervousness
  • Poor coordination
  • Nasal discharge
  • Low appetite
  • Sudden death with no other symptoms

Can Humans Catch Bird Flu?

Type A influenza viruses typically only affect birdlife, however it is not impossible for humans to contract the virus. That said, this is rare although the CDC reports that one person in Colorado has been infected by the current H5 outbreak. 

Despite this, the CDC has also reported that this does not increase the risk of human infection nor does it change their current outlook on the situation which dictates that the risk to humans remains low.

The case in Colorado sees the man not suffering from any symptoms. However, on the rare occasion that humans are infected, it is possible to experience some of the same symptoms that birds experience, including respiratory difficulty, diarrhea, a fever, abdominal pain, headache, and lethargy, among others.

H5N1 avian flu symptoms in humans

Humans that work in close contact with birds, such as farmers, are more at risk of getting the virus, but there are only some strains that can affect humans. These include H5N1 and H7N9, and while the virus can be passed from person to person, this is even rarer. In fact, since 2015, the reports of human cases of avian flu have been few and far between.

If you have been in contact with sick birds and have any of the mentioned symptoms, then it is wise to seek medical attention. In some cases, bird flu can be fatal to humans.

Should You Take Down Bird Feeders?

Avian flu: should you take down bird feeders?

With reports of cases of bird flu on the rise, it’s little wonder that homeowners are looking to discourage avian life from visiting their gardens. Many people have made their yards less attractive by removing bird feeders, but is this really necessary?

There is currently no official nationwide recommendation to remove bird feeders. That said, some states are urging residents to take them down as a temporary measure to control the spread.

Avian flu doesn’t typically affect songbirds and is more dangerous to poultry and raptors as well as waterfowl. There have been a few reported cases of infected songbirds that have become fatalities but the numbers are comparatively lower. For this reason, the general consensus is to remove bird feeders only if you keep poultry or waterfowl.

There is a possibility that songbirds could infect other types of birds like poultry, so where possible, the two need to be kept separate to avoid the spread.

With all of that in mind, we would always urge you to follow your local state government guidance on whether to temporarily remove your bird feeders. These guidelines are much more closely tailored to the local situation.

How to Help Prevent the Spread of Bird Flu

How to help prevent the spread of bird flu

If your local guidance does not recommend taking down bird feeders, then there’s no reason that you shouldn’t leave them out. However, if you are going to leave your feeders out, there are things you can do to prevent the possibility of the further spread of avian flu.

1. Clean Bird Feeders & Bird Baths Every Couple of Days

One of the easiest ways that bird flu spreads is when a bird feeds off of a surface that has been contaminated. Since you cannot be sure which birds are carrying the virus, or have the ability to control when they come and go, keeping feeding and bathing areas clean is a must!

You will need to give your bird feeder and bird bath a thorough clean at least once a month. Although there are some recommendations that this should be done as often as once a week. Where you can, clean the areas as frequently as possible.

It’s as simple as taking nine parts water and one part bleach and using this to thoroughly scrub the feeder to remove bacteria. You can use this same solution to disinfect any other surfaces that the birds may have touched, such as garden furniture.

You should not apply a diluted bleach solution to wooden items so if your feeders or anything else is made from wood, opt for a vinegar and water mix or simply biodegradable soap.

It’s also important to throw away any bird seed that has fallen to the ground and sweep away bird droppings.

2. Change Old Bird Seed Regularly

Birds that may be infected with the HPAI virus may contaminate the seed in your feeders. This is why it’s incredibly important to regularly change the seed. This should be done at least weekly but if possible, aim to change it every few days.

3. Change Bird Bath Water Every Couple of Days

Infected birds can also contaminate the water in your bird bath, so it’s essential to stay on top of changing this. You’ll want to replace the water at least every two to three days, and this will also have other benefits, including stopping the build-up of algae. Moreover, you’ll have fewer problems with mosquitoes laying their eggs in the water.

4. Spread Bird Feeders Out

There is a much greater risk of birds infecting one another when they are using feeders that are in close proximity to one another. The more you can spread out the feeders, the less chance birds will have of spreading the virus. The simple reason for this is that more feeders, further apart, limits contact between individual birds.

When many birds are using the same feeder, this causes them to have to fight for a spot which can lead to stress. When birds are stressed, this makes them more vulnerable to infection.

5. Always Wear Disposable Gloves When Cleaning Bird Feeders and Bird Baths

While the risk of humans contracting bird flu is low, it still pays to take precautions. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so they say.

You can protect yourself by making sure that you always wear gloves when tending to your bird feeders and baths. These should be disposable and should be safely discarded when you’ve finished.

While the birds in your garden might not look sick, they could still be carrying the virus, so it’s not worth taking any risks. Make sure that you work in a well-ventilated area when looking after feeders or taking care of birds. Where you can, a medical facemask is a wise idea. Don’t ever touch a dead or dying bird and if you absolutely have to then gloves are essential.

6. Wash Your Hands & Change Your Clothing’s After Coming into Contact with Wild Birds

It can also be useful to change your clothes after you have finished cleaning a bird feeder or changing the food, in case any bacteria has landed on them.

The CDC stresses the importance of washing your hands with soap and water once you have finished looking after your birdbath and feeders. Despite wearing gloves, there is still a risk of germs remaining on the hands, so you can’t be too careful.

7. Avoid Feeding Waterfowl

Waterfowl are among some of the most vulnerable birds when it comes to bird flu, so keeping away from them is going to reduce the spread of the disease. While it can be tempting to feed them when you’re out and about, during an outbreak, its best not to.

8. Keep Any Pet Birds Indoors

If you have pet birds, especially species that are susceptible to contracting HPAI viruses then it’s vital that they are kept indoors. Limit or completely cut off contact with other birds even if they seem healthy because not all animals will show symptoms when they are sick.

What Should You Do If You Find a Sick or Dead Bird?

What should you do if you find a sick or dead bird?

If you happen upon a dead or sick bird, it is essential that you do not touch it or try to remove it. Also, make sure that you keep any pets away from the bird.

You will need to report the bird to the state wildlife agency who will be able to send the bird for testing to determine whether bird flu was the cause of death.

If you have been near or in contact with an infected bird and start to show symptoms of avian flu within ten days, then it’s vital that you seek medical attention. You should also isolate at home until tests conclude that you do not have the virus or you have recovered.

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