Birds—including those in your flock—come in many different and beautiful forms. And the appreciation of birds, whether they are laying eggs in your coop or migrating to South America—can take on many forms. Do you own a pair of binoculars? A birding magazine subscription? Perhaps a bird house or a bird identification guide? Many people have placed a bird feeder in their yards to better appreciate our avian friends. But what many may not know is wild birds can be a bio-security risk, prompting this look at the realities of mixing bird feeders and poultry flocks.
By Brigid McCrea Ph.D., Extension Poultry Specialist and Associate Professor, Delaware State University
Source for disease
The three major vectors—or organisms that transmit disease—that concern small flock owners include wild birds, insects, and rodents. Of these three, wild birds carry many diseases that can significantly affect small flocks: salmonellosis, Mycoplasma,fowl pox (or avian pox), trichomoniasis, aspergillosis, avian influenza, and Newcastle disease along with a number of internal and external parasites. Treating your chickens for any of these maladies can be expensive and may even need to be reported to your state veterinarian’s office.
Many of the symptoms these ailments present are similar. No one wants to be responsible for a disease outbreak that affects their flock and those nearby. Your chickens can also pass disease onto wild birds because many of the diseases listed above can cross between species. Disease outbreaks within wild bird populations can be monitored using wild bird feeders or feeding stations.
Identification and transmission
Fowl pox, in its dry form, causes scabs around the face and other areas of the body. Trichomoniasis creates cheese-like nodes within the mouth that prevent the bird from eating and swallowing properly—these nodes are noticeable if the bird cannot close its mouth properly due to the infection. Feed from a bird feeder can easily fall from the mouth and it can be covered with the protozoa that cause trichomoniasis. The same is true of Mycoplasma, salmonellosis, avian influenza, and Newcastle disease.
Due to the design of some bird feeders, the feed may become wet and then moldy. Aspergillosis is a fungus that can grow in moldy feed and then infect the respiratory system of birds who feed there.
Anyone who has seen what the ground looks like beneath a bird feeder understands the mess. Consider this material on the ground underneath your bird feeder to be highly infective even if you have not seen actively sick birds. Wild bird droppings beneath bird feeders can carry the eggs of internal parasites like roundworms. Chickens do not discriminate between feces of their own species or the feces of a wild bird—both may be consumed.
External parasites fall off of wild birds and onto the ground or onto chickens that may be free-ranging underneath a bird feeder. Both mites and lice can infest chickens in this way.
The avian species, including chickens and all poultry, will maintain the appearance of health even when they are sick. This is because visibly sick birds are shunned by other birds. This makes maintaining the appearance of health important for as long as possible—even when they’re gravely ill. Birds often show no symptoms until they are close to death.
While bird feeders bring in beautiful specimens of wild birds from your area, as we have seen, they have the potential to bring along disease. This means that you need to consider bird feeders and poultry to be a very risky combination. It is never recommended for a bird feeder be on the same property as your flock—particularly if you free range your birds—because the risk of disease and parasite transmission of to your flock is so great.
If you are willing to remove bird feeders from your property, then go ahead. This should be your first choice and best line of defence. If the food source for wild birds is removed, then they are more likely to move on to another property. The same approach suits bird houses, too—remove them and the threat is removed, too.
If you are unwilling to remove a bird feeder, then place it in a location where your chickens don’t have access, preferably be as far as possible from your flock. Your goal is to minimize, or preferably prevent, contact between your flock and the bird feeder. If your flock is permitted in the backyard and not the front yard, then the front yard makes a better location for a bird feeder. By keeping your flock from feeding beneath the bird feeder, they will avoid coming in contact with wild bird droppings as well as discarded material that should be considered infective.
If you are going to take on the biosecurity challenge of maintaining a flock as well as a bird feeder, then be sure you fully understand what you are about to undertake. Even using the front yard in the example above, you would want to place your bird feeder away from high traffic areas. Human footwear can pick up pathogens from droppings and walk them right into your home.
If you’re worried that you will not be able to see the wild birds that visit the feeder, then invest in a pair of binoculars. Binoculars come in all different style and prices, but are priceless if it means keeping your flock healthy. If you use the same lawnmower for both the front and back yards, then mow the yard with the bird feeder in it last.
Your next biosecurity step relates to cleaning or refilling the feeder. This is when you are most likely to pick up something and unintentionally transmit it to your flock. There are many research studies of outbreaks in wild birds being spread and perpetuated by the poor cleaning of bird feeders kept by well-meaning enthusiasts.
Consider your bird feeder to always be the highest source of potential contamination on your property. This means it should be the last location you visit after caring for your birds. You need to have a dedicated set of footwear that you only wear when dealing with the bird feeder. An old pair of sneakers will do the trick, but store them away from the footwear you use when going to care for your flock.
Next, wear layers of clothing that you can take off and wash immediately after servicing the bird feeder. Wash your hands and scrub your shoes. Use a bleach solution on your shoes and let it sit for 10 minutes before rinsing it off, then let the shoes air dry. If you have a foot-bath set up as a part of your regular backyard flock bio-security measures, use it in this scenario. Bird feeders are typically filled weekly, so add in the extra time it takes when performing feeder cleaning activities.
Choosing a feeder
When choosing your bird feeder, make sure you can get your hands into every nook and cranny to make cleaning easier when washing your feeder each week with hot soapy water. If you choose a hard-to-clean feeder based on looks alone, you’re less liable to go through the hassle each week to clean it properly. Instead, choose a practical, easy-to-clean design. The bird feeder cleaning station should not be the same cleaning station where you wash your poultry equipment or where you wash your chickens.
Now that you have the facts about the risks associated with bird feeders and your flock, you can dedicate the time it takes to properly clean and care for a bird feeder. To put it into perspective: While taking the time to clean out your bird feeder properly may add extra time to your routine, how much extra time will it take to wash everyone in your flock and do a full three-day clean-out of the coop every three months because you cannot get rid of a mite problem brought in from a bird feeder? Remember, all it takes is one slip up and your flock may be infected.
If this sounds like too much, don’t hesitate to skip the feeder altogether. However, if you’re willing to do the work, then make distance your friend when it comes to placing the feeder as far from your flock as possible.
About the author
Dr. Brigid McCrea, PhD, serves as Associate Professor and Poultry Specialist at Delaware State University. She currently specializes in small flocks, niche market poultry products, and both pre- and post-harvest food safety and runs The Center For Small Flock Research and Innova