Clean-up is part of bird feeding

Sick House Finch

Sick birds at your feeder mean its time to take it down, clean it, and let the birds disperse elsewhere for a week. Photo by Ed Dien.

Published Oct. 7, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Clean-up is part of bird feeding.”

2014 Update: Don’t wait to see a sick bird to remind you to clean up your feeders.

By Barb Gorges

On one of those days I’d been going brain-cell-to-brain-cell with anonymous software engineers, I finally made a break for daylight, or at least a window overlooking the back yard.

Sunlight glistened on dog droppings, inveigling me to go outside to clean up before the next snow and get some fresh air.

Dog droppings only glisten from a certain angle. In our yard, when you wield the long-handled scoop, they blend in with patches of leaves, hide under snow remnants and hunker in shadows of the lawn made lumpy by night crawlers.

One of the lumps was the fluttering remains of a house finch. Probably dead from house finch disease. Its neck didn’t seem broken from a collision with a window, no cats have been seen lately, and the dog’s getting too slow to play with birds.

For the sake of future poop patrols, I decided to rake up the clumps of leaves. It was after all, that balmy, windless afternoon just before Thanksgiving.

And I found another dead house finch. Oh geez. Time to sterilize.

A week’s quarantine is what I tell people. Wash and put away the feeders for a week.

It’s hard to sterilize the back yard. I didn’t do anything about the branches of the spruce where the house finches line up waiting for their turns at the feeder.

But I finished raking, swept the patio and used an ammonia solution to clean other favorite, white-washed perches like the TV antenna tower and the railing by the back door.

The wooden shelf feeder I brushed off and wiped with the ammonia. I even threw some on the patio, where wet sunflower hulls and leaves have left brown patterns on the concrete. I brought the tube feeder inside to soak in a bucket before scrubbing.

As the shadows from the neighbor’s garage put the yard in mid-afternoon twilight, I realized that my Thanksgiving bird count results were going to be rather poor.

I was able to count a dozen house finches and two gold finches that were picking over the lawn and flower bed. But there were no signs of the nuthatches and mountain chickadee that have been hanging around.

Birds have no qualms about using the same location for eating and defecating, resulting in disease transmission in crowded feeder situations.

Scientists using Project FeederWatch data from citizen observers across the country have been able to track the spread of disease and the impact on house finch populations.

The moral is anyone who feeds animals—dogs or birds—is responsible for the resulting byproducts. Just think of it as a chance to go out and get a little sunshine.

Regarding the great tit observed in Scotland (mentioned in my Thanksgiving Day column), my friend Dick Hart here in Cheyenne kindly relayed quotes from his Collins Gem Guide to British birds:

“This common visitor to suburban bird-tables has approximately the same range in Britain as the Blue Tit (all parts of the British Isles, although they are scarce in north-west Scotland); there is also some immigration of both species from Europe.”

Its call is described as a “ringing e-hew, ee-hew” and as “silvery axe-blows.”

My Thayer CD of Birds of North America includes 300 photos of world birds. The great tit looks like our chickadee, just a few centimeters larger, with a black cap pulled down over its eyes.

In fact, its genus, Parus, is the same, and includes 50 species around the world.

Dick wrote, “The various species of tits achieved some notoriety a number of years ago when they learned to pry the foil caps off milk bottles left on people’s front steps and drink the milk down as far as they could reach.

“Unfortunately for the birds the Brits have gone to plastic containers like ours.”

12 ways to keep birds safe

Chick in nest

There are many things people can do to keep birds safer. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published April 30, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “12 practical ways you can help keep birds safe.”

2014 Update: American Bird Conservancy is a good resource: The current website for Audubon at Home is

By Barb Gorges

All winter our relationship to wild birds is confined to observation and, perhaps, feeding them. But now with migration and breeding seasons intersecting with an increase in human outdoor activity, we need to think about bird safety.

1. Litter – The cigarette stubbed out in the driveway disappears, but probably blew onto the neighbor’s lawn where, if it isn’t picked up, it will, like other loose trash, break down and its unnatural components will pollute soil and water. Before that is able to happen, litter could end up in the digestive system of curious babies, puppies and other animals. And remember all those photos of birds hampered by fishing line and other plastic debris.

2. Windows – If you are dreading the annual cleaning chores, skip your windows and tell people dirty ones are not as dangerous for birds. If you do wash your windows and find that one is particularly prone to getting messed up by birds thumping into it, you need to put some stickers on the outside. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Student Conservation Association and Wyoming Public Radio send me those nice static cling type stickers every year so I can advertise my affiliations at the same time.

3. Cats – Nasty winter weather made it easy to keep your cat indoors. Just continue to keep it in and buy a harness and leash for little excursions or build an outdoor pen with a screened roof. If you put a bird feeder outside a window, your indoor cat will be very happy. Just make sure the window screen is strong enough to withstand your cat’s aborted bird attacks. If you don’t have a cat and are tired of the neighbor’s eating the birds that come to your feeder, borrow a cat trap from the animal shelter or get a dog to scare it off.

4. Feeders – Cold winters are marvelous for keeping bacteria in check around feeders. Don’t quit feeding now in warm weather when migrating birds will make feeder watching even more interesting. But be sure to clean your feeders and feeding areas with a mild bleach solution every few weeks. If you see any lethargic house finches, perhaps with warty growths around their eyes, quit feeding for at least a week so the healthy birds don’t come in and get infected.

5. Water – If you provide a bird bath, make sure it has sloping sides or a sloping rock in the middle so birds can wade in. Brush the scum out every day when you refill it. Think about disinfecting it periodically. If you have tanks for watering livestock, make sure they have bird ramps to avoid drownings.

6. Pesticides – If toxic chemicals are sprayed on your lawn, you can keep small children and pets off for the necessary period of time, but birds can’t read those cute little signs. Plus, pesticides wash into ground and surface water used by people and wildlife. Instead, try non-toxic lawn and garden care. Talk to Catherine Wissner and the Master Gardeners at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension Service, 633-4383, or check out Audubon at Home,

7. Mowing – So you bought the house with five acres of prairie, and a riding mower, and you can’t wait to get out there. Please relax, take a hike or go fishing instead, and let the ground nesting birds, including the meadowlarks everyone enjoys, get the next generation started. Give them till at least mid-July.

8. Dogs – During the crucial season for ground nesting birds, late April to mid-July, keep dogs on a leash so they don’t raid nests.

9. Nest Boxes – A birdhouse that is meant to be safely used by birds will have certain crucial features. The opening will be sized precisely for the intended cavity-nesting species: house wren, mountain bluebird, tree swallow, flicker, etc. There’s no perch sticking out below, where starlings can stand while reaching in to raid the nest. Some kind of latch allows the nest box to be opened for cleaning. The box is the right dimensions, has proper ventilation, is not painted a dark color and is situated at the right height. Check the library for a book with particulars or go to

10. Baby Birds – Short of a catastrophe killing their parents, baby birds seldom need our help. It is best to leave them alone. If you watch long enough, you’ll probably see parents bringing food to the grounded fledgling until it gets up the gumption to fly. You can try setting featherless nestlings back in their nest or in a small bucket with twigs and grass hung somewhere safe near where you found them (but not if they are a ground-nesting species). Trying to feed baby birds yourself is usually not successful and deprives other wildlife species that depend on baby birds for their own food supply.

11. Shrubs and Trees – Cheyenne is in the midst of the grasslands and if we are to promote the welfare of the beleaguered grassland bird species which have lost habitat due to plowing and development, we shouldn’t promote planting trees and shrubs away from creeks and lakes. But up against our homes natural shade and windbreaks conserve energy, shelter migrating birds and attract birds we wouldn’t see otherwise out here on the plains. Choose native fruit and seed producing vegetation.

12. Energy – There is no energy source yet that doesn’t have some negative impact on wildlife. Remember, stuff you buy takes energy to produce so recycle and reuse, of course. And if you reduce the size of the house you need to heat and maintain and reduce the amount of stuff you buy that always seems to take additional energy and maintenance, guess what? You’ll save money and have more time to enjoy life and watch birds!

House Finch disease

House FInch eye disease

House Finch with eye disease. Photo by Nicole Kennedy, courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published February 27, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird feeder quarantine was good for the birds, hard on the observer.”

2014 Update: Check for the latest updates at

By Barb Gorges

There he was, the lone house finch on the tube feeder, contentedly pulling black oil sunflower seeds out and munching them thoughtfully, left behind when the rest of the flock scattered.

I took a closer look and just as I feared, he showed outward signs that he was not a well bird, despite his glowing red head and chest. Eye disease. One eye was encircled in rings of crusty featherless wrinkles.

Sick birds conserve their strength. They don’t fly off with the flock for every little perceived threat. When they get really sick, I’ve seen them huddle on my windowsill.

There isn’t anything anyone can do for them, but I can protect the rest of the birds by taking down my feeders which will get the house finches to disperse and be less likely to pass diseases to each other or to other finch species.

This winter I’ve had quite a regular crew showing up every day: two Eurasian collared-doves, two mountain chickadees, two red-breasted nuthatches, a downy woodpecker, 10 or so house finches and a few juncos with occasional appearances by pine siskins and goldfinches. I really hated to disappoint them.

After I took the feeders down, dumped out the birdbath and swept all the seed debris off the patio, I watched later as the gang sat on the powerline while one or two individuals would sally forth and fly a circle around the last known location of the sunflower seed feeder. Then they left.

In a week, after Mark scrubbed the bird poop off the railing and patio and washed out the feeders with a mild bleach solution, he refilled the feeders and nearly all of the previous birds began to reappear within a day. The chickadees took five days.

I don’t know where the sick house finch contracted his disease, but I do know that we had gotten behind in cleaning up our feeders and the area around them.

Feeding birds is something we do because we enjoy watching birds up close. The birds usually don’t depend on feeding—they have plenty of naturally occurring seeds to forage, but they sure enjoy the convenience.

Songbirds can get a pox that affects their eyes. But there is also house finch eye disease, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, caused by a bacterium common to domestic turkeys and chickens, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It was first noticed in house finches in 1993 on the east coast, where house finches were introduced 50 years earlier.

The Lab has been studying the spread of the disease for the last 15 years using observations provided by birdwatching citizen scientists. After a major outbreak on the east coast a few years ago, the disease is no longer quite as prevalent. Some sick individual birds actually survive but apparently do not become immune to the disease.

The eastern house finches seem to be more susceptible and one reason might be that most of them are thought to be inbred descendents of a small group that was introduced in the east in the 1940’s from western North America where they are native. Inbreeding can cause susceptibility to disease.

The good news is this is one avian disease that does not pose a health risk to people, except that quarantining our feeders and losing “our” birds for a week felt like a mental hardship. But then again, perhaps I accomplished more in that time because I wasn’t distracted by the comings and goings I like to watch out the window above my laptop screen.

Some people watch fish swim in a bowl to reduce stress. Watching birds outside my window works for me. I’m glad the gang came back.