Tuesday 20 February 2018

Scrub those feeders, save the birds

Waste seed can congeal in damp areas
Waste seed can congeal in damp areas

Joe Kennedy

After the hard weather, a thaw brings its own problems to garden birds which have survived through daily seed and nut feeding, plus fresh water supplies.

The principal one is a disease called trichomoniasis - which sounds like some awful new influenza - but, in fact, is a rather appalling affliction for some species of small songbird.

When contracted it certainly leaves them without the ability to sing - but it's much worse. Their throats become blocked, they cannot swallow food or water, puff up their feathers forlornly and eventually fall down dead from their perching places.

Every winter, BirdWatch Ireland, the major nature charity, gets reports from householders about this dreadful scourge that has struck their little garden colonies leaving groggy, half-dead birds as pathetic shadows of their former lively selves. Of the smaller birds, the robin alone seems to escape and the blackbird can still prance up and down pathways punching into halved apples with their yellow beak-drills.

This disease most commonly afflicts greenfinches, chaffinches and the more easily recognised and beautiful goldfinches - and poor house sparrows, of course, those remnants of flocks still hanging in there, as mankind's poisons wreak their deadly toll.

Some of the bigger birds, such as pigeons and doves, can be affected and in the countryside the occasional pheasant may be seen in a semi-hibernated state.

This disease is not caused by a mystery virus but from an infection with the single-celled protozoan Trichomonas gallinae, which causes lesions to form at the back of the throat and sinuses. As the disease develops it becomes more difficult for the birds to swallow food or even to drink. Inevitably this leads to starvation and dehydration. But, surprisingly, some birds do pull through.

There is no known cure for wild birds so infected. The whole dreadful business begins right there in the garden with dirty splash baths, drinkers and feed containers and bird tables where waste seed and meal can congeal, particularly in wet and damp areas - I immediately think of a particular plastic feeder of nyjer seed (for goldfinches) where husks fall to a base and collect.

It is important to be observant at this time, looking out for moping or hunched birds. At the first signs of illness, cease feeding, take down plastic or wooden feeders, food tables and baths, scrub them and leave them to dry in the air and sunshine. Wildlife-friendly biological disinfectants can be purchased.

Do not put out any feeding or water for about 10 days, so that surviving birds can disperse. Do not refill those feeders until there is no sign of any sick birds about the garden. I have mentioned robins and blackbirds being immune; so also are domestic pets and you also, the caring bird enthusiast.

The emphasis in dealing with this problem is clearly based on environmental hygiene - careful distribution of seed and nuts, fresh water daily, regular cleaning of containers and baths. Make this a firm resolution for the coming year.

Sunday Independent

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