AS autumn turns to winter and bird-lovers step up supplementary feeding, the RSPCA’s new data highlights just how vulnerable garden birds can be to ill-health.
The 8,750 calls to the charity in 2021 about sick or weak garden birds included ground feeders such as wood pigeons (726), blackbirds (375) and robins (84), as well as those that use hanging feeders such as sparrows (235), finches (47) and tits (42).
With the RSPCA’s helpline struggling with an unprecedented high volume of calls and the charity facing a very high workload, the public helping to maintain the health of garden birds – and other animals – is a real priority.
Garden birds can become seriously ill or die from diseases caught from dirty feeders and water bowls.
The RSPCA says the devastating spread of bird flu particularly amongst Britain’s waterfowl and seabird population is a timely reminder of the devastation that can occur from contagious diseases. While bird flu thankfully doesn’t tend to affect garden birds, steps to prevent highly infectious diseases from spreading through a bird population are essential whatever the species.
To help garden birds maintain their health, the RSPCA recommends: :
- Cleaning feeders weekly and water containers every day (rinse with water and dry before refilling)
- Rotating feeding areas around the garden (this keeps bird droppings and bacteria from building up)
- Keeping feeding areas raised above the ground (to deter mice, rats and other unwanted visitors)
With 50% of people saying they feed birds (the most popular way to be kind to animals), according to the charity’s new groundbreaking Animal Kindness Index 2022, the RSPCA says it is “heart-warming” that so many people across the UK want to do what’s best for these popular garden visitors. But it can be a challenge to care for them properly.
RSPCA scientific officer Evie Button said: “Birds can die from diseases caught from dirty feeders and water bowls so it’s really important to keep garden bird feeders clean.
“Last year, we took almost 9,000 calls from people reporting sick or weak garden birds. That’s already far too many, but sadly, that figure is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg; many birds will become sick and will die unseen by humans.
“It’s really heart-warming that so many people – around half the population – want to help garden birds by feeding them. But this data suggests that birds are not as healthy as they should be and one way we can make a difference and keep them disease-free is good hygiene.
“While bird flu – a terrible disease which is currently sweeping through our waterfowl and seabird populations – thankfully doesn’t tend to affect garden birds very often, it’s a timely reminder of the devastation that can occur from a highly contagious disease.
“As supplementary feeding does encourage birds to gather together in close proximity, it can create ideal conditions for diseases to spread amongst garden birds. By regularly cleaning bird feeders we can all do our bit to help stop the spread of devastating diseases and maintain the health of our garden birds.”
The Garden Wildlife Health project provides detailed information about how to promote health in garden birds. They say that just like people, when birds gather in close proximity (for example, around feeders) diseases can be more easily transmitted between individuals. Feeding stations also see different species coming together which would not naturally feed or mix in close contact. This can lead to species being exposed to pathogens they would otherwise not come across.
Larger congregations of birds can also lead to contamination of the feeding station itself, through droppings or saliva. The Garden Wildlife Health project therefore provides best practice guidelines for garden bird feeding on their website to help inform on how to reduce the risks of disease transmission in garden birds. You can also report any sightings of ill-health or death in garden birds directly to their website to help learn more about the conditions affecting garden wildlife.
The Garden Wildlife Health project has collaboratively produced best practice garden bird feeding guidelines which provide information on what to feed, when to feed, where to feed, what to do if you see a sick or dead bird in your garden, and how to reduce the risk of disease for your garden birds.
For more information about feeding and caring for wild garden birds, please visit the RSPCA’s website.
And for RSPCA advice on what to do if you find a sick bird in your garden: https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/wildlife/injuredanimals