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Deadly Bird Feeders - How to Keep Your Garden Birds Healthy

written by Jess Cartwright

While bird baths, feeding stations and perches are a wonderful addition to your garden, did you know that they can potentially spread illnesses to wild birds if not properly looked after? To prevent sickness and keep your garden a happy place for birds, it is important to understand which illnesses can be caused by improper food and water hygiene, and the steps needed to halt infection if it occurs.

The first thing you should do if you suspect an ill or dead bird is contact your local wildlife rescue centre who can advise where to take the bird or how to dispose of one. Often treatment cannot be administered in the wild in case specific treatments cause adverse reactions to other birds in the area. If you are asked to take the bird to a vet, be aware that while some vets will treat wild animals for free, others will charge for this.

It is important to only handle a sick or dead bird yourself if you absolutely have to, and make sure you wear gloves and a face mask if touching can’t be avoided. Wash your hands and thoroughly clean any surfaces afterwards to protect yourself and other animals.

While death and illness of birds is sometimes unavoidable, it is helpful to understand the causes and symptoms of common diseases that can affect your little friends in the garden, and how to avoid potentially fatal outbreaks. If you suspect a bird is unwell it could be caused by one of these three common diseases, which can continue to spread in your garden if action isn’t taken.


Canker is an illness that affects a bird’s digestive system. It can be spread easily from an infected bird through regurgitated food and infected saliva. The illness develops as lesions in the throat of the bird which makes feeding difficult, and sometimes impossible, as swallowing is restricted and painful. Birds will regurgitate food they can’t eat, and if this food is eaten by another bird the infection spreads. Water can also become contaminated if infected saliva or food falls into it, which can cause a lot of birds to get ill if they are feeding from shared tables.

The most common signs are:

  • Lethargy

  • Fluffed up and/or matted and wet plumage

  • Regurgitating food

  • Laboured breathing

  • Difficulty swallowing and uneaten food around its beak

  • Swelling of the neck

  • Most commonly affects finches, doves and pigeons

Avian Pox

Avian Pox is quite obvious to see as it causes external wart-like growths to develop anywhere on the body of a bird, including legs and wings. Even with growths present, the birds can move around and act as normal. The illness is spread through biting insects, contact with other birds as well as indirect contact through shared spaces. Birds can survive with avian pox but some growths can grow large and make seeing or feeding difficult and cause the infected bird to be more prone to other infections.

The most common signs are:

  • Grey, pink, red or yellow growths on the body (can sometimes be mistaken for ticks)

  • Most commonly affected birds are tits, dunnocks and pigeons.


Outbreaks of salmonella are most common in winter months and is much harder to spot. There are no obvious signs other than general ill-health. The illness causes disease in the gullet, spleen and liver and is spread through droppings, which can contaminate water and shared food stations. It is very unlikely, but it has the potential to affect humans and other animals so it is vital to exercise hygiene if you suspect salmonellosis within your birds.

The most common signs of salmonellosis are:

  • Lethargy

  • Loss of appetite

  • Fluffed-up plumage

  • Most commonly affected birds are greenfinches and house sparrows

What you can do to help prevent illness in garden birds

Luckily, practicing simple hygiene can help ensure birds are kept healthy. Think of the garden as a kitchen for birds, where disinfecting is crucial to killing off harmful bacteria and making sure food is healthy to eat. You can do this by:

  • Regularly cleaning feeding stations, bird baths and perches with detergent and rinse and leave to dry fully before refilling

  • Make sure food and water is replaced regularly

  • Keep an eye on the birds in your garden and call a local rescue centre if you think a bird has fallen ill

  • If you notice a number of birds falling ill then it is recommended to temporarily stop putting out food and water to reduce the spread of infection

Hopefully by taking these steps and checking on your garden birds regularly, you can help minimise the risk of them catching illnesses and ensure your garden birds are happy and thriving for many years to come.

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