Why You Should Take Down Bird Feeders, Bird Baths Until Further Notice
Bring in the bird feeders.
All of them.
Empty the birdbaths.
To the last drop.
And do not put them back up until further notice.
That’s the urgent recommendation from the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environment (DEEP) and the Connecticut Audubon Society.
The reason? An unknown affliction has been killing birds and it’s spreading.
It started in the Washington, D.C. area and mid-Atlantic states, says Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, and has since spread to more mid-Atlantic states, southern states, and mid-Western states. He says DEEP officials are concerned it may already be in Connecticut, and so they made the recommendation to bring in all bird feeders and bird baths immediately.
Some bird experts, however, say it’s too early to know whether birds in Connecticut will be affected. Rather than taking their feeders in, they plan to keep their feeders scrupulously clean while they wait for more information.
The birds that are dying, many of them young birds found with swollen eyes and crusty discharges, include the common grackle, blue jay, European starling, American robin, northern cardinal, house finch, house sparrow, eastern bluebird, red-bellied woodpecker, and Carolina wren, according to a report from the U.S. Geological Service . Even though hummingbirds are not on the list, dedicated hummingbird feeders should be emptied and taken down as well, the Connecticut Audubon Society says.
“Feeders includes hummingbird feeders,” says Tom Andersen, director of communications for The Connecticut Audubon Society. “The reason we recommend taking all feeders down is similar to the reason restaurants were closed during the pandemic. If the disease is infectious, it will spread in places where birds are close together.”
‘A Complete Mystery’
As for nesting boxes, there currently is no specific advisory, he says.
“There’s no advisory as of now about taking down bird houses. Once the nesting season is over, which will be in a matter of weeks, birds will no longer be using them, in any case,” Andersen says.
The specific recommendations from the Connecticut Audubon Society include:
• Stop feeding birds and providing water in bird baths for the time being.
• Bring your feeders and bird baths in and clean them with a 10 percent bleach solution.
• Avoid handling dead or injured wild birds. Wear disposable gloves if it’s necessary to handle a bird.
• Keep pets away from sick or dead birds as a standard precaution.
• To dispose of dead birds, place them in a sealable plastic bag and discard with household trash. This will prevent disease transmission to other birds and wildlife.
• Anyone who finds a group of dead birds, or a dead bird with swollen eyes and crusty discharges should report it to DEEP, Comins says, by calling 203-424-3011 or visiting www.cfwwildbirdmortalityreporting.ct.gov.
Comins says reports of “extraordinary numbers of dead birds” in the Washington, D.C. and mid-Atlantic started to come in in April of this year. The sightings and reports coincided with the 2021 periodical emergence of Brood X cicadas.
“So people wondered if it was a pesticide being used against the cicadas that was concentrating in the birds,” he says. “But it continued to expand beyond the D.C. area into Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana, and now apparently it may be in Connecticut, because we are starting to receive more reports of dead birds.”
Do they know the cause?
“No. It’s completely a mystery at this time,” he says. “They have tested the birds for all known causes of bird mortality...They’ve also been tested for parasites. And they all tested negative for any known causal factor.”
Majority Affected Are Fledglings
Officials at the U.S. Geological Survey say the majority of birds affected are fledglings.
“No definitive cause(s) of illness or death have been determined at this time. No human health or domestic livestock and poultry issues have been reported,” the agency said in a report published June 2. “The natural resource management agencies in the affected states and the District of Columbia, along with the National Park Service, are continuing to work with diagnostic laboratories to investigate the cause(s) of this event.”
The birds have been tested for the following known pathogens, none of which has been detected as of the beginning of June: salmonella and chlamydia (bacterial pathogens); avian influenza virus; West Nile virus and other flaviviruses; Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses; herpesviruses and poxviruses; and trichomonas parasites. “Transmission electron microscopy and additional diagnostic tests, including microbiology, virology, parasitology, and toxicology, are ongoing. Toxicology tests are still being processed,” the agency reported.
Comins says poisons, pesticides, and other bioaccumulating compounds are being investigated as a possible cause. “They are looking for poisons that might be involved. There are actual bird poisons. And then some modern pesticides include neonicotinoids that are highly toxic to birds in small quantities. With West Nile virus and Lyme disease, people are using more pesticides these days. That’s what we have to test for, to see if there are any bioaccumulating compounds. Birds are high on the food chain and certain pesticides accumulate up the food chain. So if a bird eats 10 contaminated insects, it will have 10 times the amount of toxin.”
The most alarming part of all of this is the uncertainty, he says.
“We just don’t know and that’s kind of scary,” he says. “Birds are an important part of the ecosystem. If there’s a problem with bird populations in general, we can’t tell what the effect will be. We could see an abundance of ticks, mosquitoes, [or] locusts. We won’t know what the birds are keeping in check until they are gone.”
He says studies have also shown that birds save the agricultural industry billions of dollars a year with their pest control services. The stakes are high and so that’s why the advice is, “take them down” when it comes to bird feeders and bird baths, he says. “And it’s not just us saying it. The State of Connecticut also is saying it. And Pennsylvania. And Ohio. And Indiana.”
When will we know when it’s safe to put the back up again?
‘With All Due Respect...’
Janet Connolly, who runs the Audubon Shop in Madison with her husband Jerry Connolly, says the store has not received any official notification from the state about the disease. Jerry Connolly says it’s too early to know whether taking the feeders down is required.
“With all due respect to DEEP and CT Audubon, we feel that the call to take down feeders and baths is over-reactive and/or premature,” he says. “At this point in time, The Audubon Shop in Madison is not recommending people take in bird feeders and baths. Instead we are encouraging people to be hyper-vigilant in cleaning all feeders and baths to prevent the spread of any disease.”
He says their reasoning is that no one knows yet what this illness is;it isn’t known whether its bacterial or viral; it isn’t known how it’s spread; and that there have been no confirmed cases in Connecticut.
“If this disease does take hold in Connecticut, we will be strongly behind the take-your-feeders-in strategy,” he says. “Our customers love feeding birds. For many, it is a fascinating and rewarding hobby you can do in your own backyard, a perfect pause from the chaotic world we live in.”
While the Connollys do sell bird seed and bird feeders in their store, they also lead bird hikes, birding trips internationally, and sell a wide range of other tools and equipments that allow people who love birds to enjoy them. The Connollys, who have been in the bird business since 1986, say they have the best interests of both the birds, and their customers, at heart, and will be following the news of the bird illness closely.
Bird experts say to use a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water to clean bird feeders. Soaking them in that, plus rinsing them with a powerful hose, and letting them dry thoroughly in the sun should help keep feeders clean.
Janet Connolly adds that in addition to keeping bird feeders scrupulously clean, birders should buy small amount of bird feed at a time to ensure it is fresh, they should make sure the bird feed containers are likewise very clean. Hummingbird feeders, in warm weather, should be cleaned at least once a day or at least every time the solution is changed.
She says birds might be a little disappointed if feeders are taken down, but that they will not suffer. “If all of the sudden it stopped, no, it will not hurt them,” she says. “You’re not going to upset the balance of things if you stop.” When feeders go back up after a break, it may take a week or so, but they will come back, she says. She says bird lovers are welcome to call the store at 203-245-9056 if they have any questions.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on Thursday, July 8 to reflect additional information from the Audubon Shop.