Feeding wild birds is a great way to see them up close, and it provides a valuable source of food, especially in the wintertime. But there are risks that come with feeding wild birds.
You can get sick from feeding wild birds, especially if you feed birds directly out of your hand rather than using a feeder. It’s important to take steps to keep the birds that you feed healthy, both for your own safety and for theirs.
Why Feeding Wild Birds Can Make You Sick
Wild birds are carriers for a number of bacteria and fungi that cause disease in both humans and other birds.
Birds that use feeders are especially at risk, because the congregation of birds at a feeder makes it more likely for disease to spread.
There are also a number of parasites that attach to birds and can be spread to humans, like ticks. These parasites carry their own diseases, which are potentially very dangerous to humans.
You can pick up one of these pathogens by not just by directly handling birds, but also by handling feeders or bird baths where birds have been.
Thankfully, there are a number of safety measures that you can take to decrease the likelihood that you’ll contract a disease through contact with a bird.
Diseases Carried by Birds
Many of the diseases carried by birds cause serious health problems both for humans and birds, with symptoms that range from gastrointestinal distress to fatality.
The following are all diseases that commonly infect birds and may be spread to humans.
Salmonella is the most common disease found in feeder birds. It’s caused by a bacteria that infects the intestinal tract, causing diarrhea, ruffled feathers and lethargy in birds. Birds that are infected often die within 1 to 3 days.
In humans, salmonella infections cause fever and stomach cramps, as well as diarrhea. These symptoms start anywhere from six hours to six days after exposure, and then last four to seven days.
This infection can become severe if untreated, spreading to the blood, bones, or nervous system.
Thankfully, antibiotics can reverse the course of a salmonella infection, and recovery is usually quick. The only long term effect that’s somewhat common is reactive arthritis, which can last for months or years when it occurs.
Salmonella infections are spread in birds by eating food that’s contaminated with the droppings of sick birds, and spread to humans by handling birds who are sick or dead.
To avoid a salmonella infection, you should wear gloves when handling sick birds and wash your hands thoroughly after touching a birdbath or bird feeder.
Avian Influenza H5N1 is a highly infectious viral disease spread from birds to humans, which thankfully has now been mostly eradicated.
Although the death toll of this virus was low in humans, it destroyed bird populations, and was fatal in 60% of cases where humans were infected.
Because bird flu affected migratory birds like ducks, it quickly spread across the globe, and it especially ravaged poultry populations. This led to mass vaccinations of chickens and other agricultural birds.
Bird flu also affected feeder birds, and many steps you’d take to prevent other infections apply to stopping the spread of the bird flu.
This includes cleaning and disinfecting your bird feeder and bird bath, as well as avoiding touching birds with your bare hands. In cases where you would need or want to touch a bird directly, you can prevent the spread by washing your hands.
Trichomoniasis is a disease caused by parasitic protozoa, carried by pigeons and doves as well as their predators, hawks and falcons.
Trichomoniasis causes birds to develop sores in their throats and mouths, which in turn causes them to contaminate and drop food. This spreads the disease to other birds, who pick up the dropped food.
This disease does not typically spread to humans, but it can spread to domesticated birds and other pets.
Aspergillosis is an infection caused by the Aspergillus fungus, found in damp seed mixtures or nesting materials and inhaled into the lungs.
This causes pneumonia and bronchitis in birds, which in turn causes labored breathing, diarrhea, and weakness.
Aspergillosis is most commonly spread to humans who hunt birds and then inhale the spores from the bird carcasses.
You’re less likely to catch aspergillosis from feeding birds, but you should make sure that your bird seed doesn’t become damp, and you should be careful handling any bird seed that has become damp because it may carry these fungal spores.
To prevent this fungal infection from spreading, you should consider a bird feeder that’s covered and that has drainage holes to keep seeds dry, like the Acerich Window Bird Feeder.
Avian Pox is a widespread viral disease that affects 60 species of wild birds, causing lesions on the legs, feet and eyelids, as well as around the beak and mouth.
Although most birds recover, in some, the lesions around the eyes prevent the birds from being able to find food and cause starvation.
Avian Pox is spread through direct contact with infected birds or through mosquito bites, but has not been known to cause any health issues in humans.
Although birds are not considered hosts of lyme disease, they can carry infected ticks from place to place and spread the disease to humans that way. Lyme disease causes serious symptoms in human hosts, especially if left untreated.
Early symptoms of lyme disease include fatigue, muscle and joint aches, fever, chills and headaches, as well as swollen lymph nodes.
If caught at this point, an antibiotic treatment can reverse the symptoms, and a full recovery is possible.
If lyme disease is left untreated, it can cause serious problems in the long term, including facial paralysis, arthritis, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and shooting pains in the nerves, as well as numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.
How To Feed and Care for Birds Safely
Feeding birds safely means preventing the spread of disease within bird populations, as well as preventing the spread of disease to humans.
The following are all good ways to feed birds safely:
- Clean your birdfeeder every month, using one part bleach to nine parts warm water. Soak for several minutes, and then rinse and air dry.
- If uneaten food accumulates under your feeders, use less food or switch seeds. Leftover seed on the ground can become contaminated and then eaten.
- If your feeders are congested, add more feeders to prevent crowding.
- Store your seed in an airtight container to prevent it from spoiling.
- Don’t throw large amounts of food on the ground, as uneaten food on the ground can develop mold or bacterial growth.
- If you find dead birds nearby, stop feeding for several weeks and clean your feeders thoroughly.
- When you clean your feeder, do so outside with a bucket, not in a kitchen sink. Make sure that it’s completely dried before adding more seed.
- If you need to dispose of a dead bird, wear rubber gloves, or use a plastic bag to pick up the bird. To throw the bird away, wrap it in two plastic bags and either bury it or place it in the trash.
- If you have other pets, make sure that they don’t come into contact with a dead bird.
- If you feed birds by hand, wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
A bird bath, like the Pure Garden 50-LG1072 Antique Bird Bath, is a great addition to a bird feeder if you want to attract birds to your lawn, but remember that these can carry and spread pathogens as well.
If possible, you should incorporate a fountain, like the AISITIN Solar Fountain Pump, or stream feature in the water to prevent insects from laying eggs there, and you should regularly wash the bath with nine parts water, one part vinegar.
Feeding wild birds carries the risk of infection both for you and for them, and so it’s important to be careful about the way that you do it.
Keep your feeder clean and avoid feeding birds directly out of your hand if possible. If you do really want to feed birds directly from your hand, just make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.