When birds stop by your feeder/restaurant, they're at a disadvantage: no health department regulations or inspections protect them.
If you aren't a health-conscious restaurant owner, you may love them to death by offering seeds and deadly bacteria. You can feed without endangering. Start by not crossing over to the dark side of irresponsibility.
Poorly maintained bird feeders can lead to birds becoming infected with the eye disease conjunctivitis, aspergillosis, salmonellosis or avian pox.
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If a bird has salmonellosis, for instance, there's really no way to tell whether it came from your feeder, so err on the clean side. Clean feeders every two weeks with one part bleach to nine parts water.
Because birds congregate at feeders, it's easy to spread problems. And the salmonella bacteria and avian pox can survive in very cold temperatures, so the chill factor won't help.
The house finch disease is spread by contact between birds or between a healthy bird and a feeder that a sick bird has touched. For that reason, avoid tube feeders that require a bird to stick their heads into holes, where they can rub against a spot that has been touched by the sick bird.
Disease organisms can build up on seed, as can mold spores that don't mind the cold. Wet seed can quickly go bad; keep your seed dry or throw it in the garbage.
If you see a bird with a bulbous growth on face or feet, malformed bill, or reddish, watery eyes, discard the seeds. Take down and clean all feeders. Don't put them up for a week while the birds disperse. When the feeders go back, birds will return.
Some worry that if birds become dependent on feeders, they won't survive once the feeder food is gone. Studies have shown that birds won't die if you're away on vacation. A black-capped chickadee study found that feeders supplied about 20 percent of their nutritional needs.
Remember, any one bird is at your feeder only a relatively short time each day. The rest of the day it's foraging in its natural environment.
However, under some circumstances (heavy, long-lasting snow or extreme cold), feeders might help birds survive.
Feeders bring more birds in striking distance of windows. When the light creates a reflection of trees or sky, or when the bird is startled in the direction of the house, they can be killed on contact, leaving small bodies on your deck.
To minimize that effect, place feeders either very close to the house, where if contact occurs, it's with minimal speed; or far enough away that they are unlikely to be startled into the window.
Squirrels, raccoons and rats also like bird food. Even if unwanted guests can't get into your feeders, seeds drop on the ground.
We don't have a squirrel or rat problem where I live and the raccoons come by regularly to clean up fallen seed, so it's not an issue, although the husks need to be scooped up to prevent mold.
Take measures to discourage the trio. Keep the tossed seed from piling up on the ground, perhaps using a seed tray under a feeder that you'll regularly empty. Don't put out more seed than birds can eat in a day. If necessary, bring your feeders in at night.
Remember that congregating ground-feeding birds will help eat fallen seed, but they also become a target for cats.
Some argue against feeding birds because it interferes with the natural order of things. Most of us argue that humans have disrupted that natural order so much that providing shelter, food and water is a small countermeasure - as long as we don't cross over to the dark side.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.