Jim Bentley doesn't have to meet any health department standards outside his West Juneau home, but he isn't sure that the bleach and blowtorch he's been using will keep his bird feeders clean enough.
"I have to conclude that my handing out food is not doing any good," he said.
Recently he saw about 30 dead birds in one month. Sometimes he saw as many as three or four a day, he said.
Deborah Rudis, environmental contaminants biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau, agreed that people with feeders could be doing more harm than good. She said a salmonella bacterial infection is most likely to blame for dead siskins and redpolls reported in the area.
Eight steps to curb disease at bird feeders
1. Give birds space - Crowding creates stress which may make birds more vulnerable to disease.
2. Clean up waste - A broom and shovel can accomplish a lot, but a vacuum to clean up waste food and droppings will help even more.
3. Provide safe feeders without sharp points or edges - Even small scratches and cuts will allow bacteria and viruses to enter otherwise healthy birds.
4. Clean and disinfect feeders regularly - Use one part of liquid chlorine household bleach to nine parts of tepid water. Make enough solution to immerse an empty feeder completely for two to three minutes. Allow to air dry. Once or twice a month should do, but weekly could help more if you notice sick birds.
5. Discard any food that smells musty, is wet, looks moldy or has fungus growing on it - Disinfect any storage container that holds spoiled food and the scoop used to fill feeders from it.
6. Keep rodents out of stored food - Mice can carry and spread some bird diseases without being affected themselves.
7. Act early - Don't wait to act until you see sick or dead birds.
8. Spread the word - Birds normally move among feeders and can spread diseases as they go.
Source: Deborah Rudis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
An outbreak of salmonellosis, from salmonella bacteria, was determined to be in flocks of siskins visiting Juneau-area bird feeders.
Salmonella can be spread in feeders where large numbers of birds converge, she explained. Birds don't care where they leave their droppings and the droppings that spread the bacteria can get mixed in with feed.
"We received calls from individuals in north Douglas, the airport neighborhood, Back Loop and near the Pioneer Home," she said of dead siskins. "Most recently we have received reports of dead siskins and redpolls at 16 mile."
Tests haven't yet been done to see if there is salmonella bacteria in redpolls, she said, but based on observations, that could easily be the case.
A die-off of redpolls - a common name for red-capped finches - also has been reported this season in Interior Alaska. Preliminary tests failed to detect the presence of salmonella bacteria, although biologists there say they still believe the birds are dying from something spread at feeders.
Rudis said she lives on the back of Mendenhall Loop Road and feeds birds during the winter, when the hibernating bears aren't attracted to the them.
"We have a hanging feeder we take in every night," she said. Some people, she added, have feeding platforms that they have to keep clean.
"You don't want to hurt the birds you're feeding," she said.
Bentley said he has been changing the water in his birdbath daily and using a torch to dry his feeders after washing because they don't dry on their own.
He also doesn't put more food out to attract bigger numbers of birds. After seeing some dead birds, he now believes crowding contributed to the spread of disease.
"I put out just a little bit now," he said.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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