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9 Ways to Keep Your Bird Feeding Areas Cleaner & Healthier

I can bet with pretty good accuracy that most people are not cleaning their bird feeders correctly. It’s easy to think that the rain or a quick rinse with a hose will sufficiently wash and sanitize your feeders and birdbaths. It was only when I began to do serious research that I learned that dirty bird feeding stations are hotbeds of disease which can seriously impact our feathered friends – and sometimes humans and their pets, too.

Our bird feeding stations and water sources are places where birds gather. Some in great numbers. Those groups create the mechanisms for the spread of disease. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, common illnesses picked up at feeders and sometimes contaminated water includes House Finch Eye Disease, Avian Pox, and Salmonellosis. In May 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 29 people in 12 U.S. States were sickened and 14 hospitalized in 2021 by Salmonella originating from dirty bird feeders. The summer of 2021 also saw a mystery illness sweep through several Mid-Atlantic states killing mostly young songbirds and leading to a temporary ban on bird feeding. Making sure your bird feeders and water sources are regularly cleaned with a 10% bleach solution is key to helping mitigate the spread. Other practices like eliminating seed waste on the ground, cleaning rails, banisters, or other surfaces where birds gather; purchasing feeders with easy-to-clean designs; and remembering to maintain your birdbaths frequently will make a huge difference to the health of your birding eco-system.

1. Clean Bird Feeders Regularly

Regularly cleaning your bird feeders is an often neglected and essential housekeeping chore of every responsible backyard birder. Put a note on your calendar. Set up a reminder on your cell phone. You should be cleaning your feeders at least every two weeks or weekly if your feeding areas get a lot of traffic.

Ramp up your cleaning schedule when the weather is hot and damp, conditions that could lead to mold buildup.

2. Bleach is Boss

To effectively rid your feeders of the pesky collection of germs, bacteria, and deadly mold, bleach is the top choice of responsible backyard birders. Bleach does a better job of disinfecting feeders than other types of cleaners, including plain soap or vinegar soaks.

Bleach can be smelly, and some folks worry about its toxicity. But when you dilute to the 10% bleach solution recommendation (one part bleach to nine parts water), you’re creating a cleaning powerhouse that will eliminate the dangerous germs that may cause illness.

3. Avoid “Natural” Cleaners

We worry about our impact on the environment with good reason. Caustic cleaners can be dangerous to ourselves and the earth. But when it comes to keeping diseases away from humans, domesticated animals, and our wild animal friends, you must take a scientific approach to cleaning. If you’re using an alternative cleaner other than the dilute bleach solution recommended by experts, take a good look at the label first to ensure it has suitable disinfecting qualities.

You don’t want to only clean and sanitize your feeder. You also want to disinfect it by destroying germ-causing pathogens that cause disease.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a disinfectant as a solution able to kill 99.9 percent of disease-causing bacteria and viruses. So does vinegar measure up as an effective birdfeeder cleaner?

“In one small study that looked at the efficacy of both chemical and natural cleaning products, 6 percent vinegar was found to be antimicrobial and decreased the presence of Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli—but not nearly as effectively as chemical products like Clorox and Lysol.”

Is Vinegar a Disinfectant? What to Know Before Using White Vinegar for Cleaning 
WOMEN’S HEALTH, BY Emily Shiffer

Many of the germs on bird feeders would resist just a vinegar soak – even an extended one. So it’s best to go with the 10% bleach solution recommended by most informed birding experts.

Lindy’s Cleaning Suggestions:

4. Get in the Nooks & Crannies

Taking apart your feeders and removing any seed, mold, or material residue is really important in guaranteeing your feeder is fresh and ready for new birdseed. Moldy birdseed can sicken and kill birds. Fecal matter residue can spread illness not only to other birds but to humans and their pets.

Take the time to carefully clean anything stuck on the inside or outside of your feeder. Brushes like these can help to get into difficult-to-reach spaces.

5. Your Ground Game Counts

Seed hulls and discarded seeds under your feeders can result in a moldy mess that may sicken and kill backyard birds and other outdoor creatures. Accumulated ground waste can also attract unwanted furry friends like mice and rats. The ground will not magically absorb all of your seed waste. Make sure you are regularly sweeping up and discarding fallen seeds on your decks and patios. Get under the deck space, too, to remove the seeds that may have fallen through the deck slats. You will be surprised at how quickly waste can accumulate.

Give a monthly to bi-weekly raking around ground feeders and discard seed residue in the trash. The jury is out on whether you should compost seed waste and, if so, just how much. I’ve seen warnings against it, especially sunflower seed hulls, as they are allopathic and may inhibit competing plants in the same area.

Some folks use sunflower hulls as mulch as their allopathic qualities can reduce weeds, but I’m a bit wary of this due to the propensity of seed waste to become moldy. You will easily find competing opinions on this online, and as one smart gardening blogger pointed out, “This is all fairly new science, and we don’t have many answers.”

A clever product I’ve seen on Amazon with great reviews is a hull digester spray. It gets high marks for helping dissolve seed waste and greatly reduces bird seedlings sprouting under bird feeders. You attach it to your hose and spray areas where birdseed accumulates.

6. Get to those Gathering Places

Bird waste on your decks, patio, railings, window sills, and outdoor furniture can spread illness to humans, pets, and other wild birds. Make sure you’re regularly cleaning and disinfecting these areas and removing any accumulated bird poop. I use a great product called Poop-Off that helps loosen and whisk away any stubborn waste stains.

7. Remember Your Bird Baths

Water sources for birds year-round help them survive. Making sure there is always clean water for your birds year-round is an important part of being a responsible backyard birder. Clean your bird baths weekly and even more frequently during high-traffic days in the summer. Always wear gloves and use a quality cleaning brush to give your baths a good scrub.

While there are enzyme-based birdbath cleaners on the market, their ratings are mixed. A good scrub brush, a little elbow grease, and the 10% bleach solution is really your best bet for a good disinfecting cleansing.

8. Help the Hummingbirds

If you have hummingbird feeders, cleaning should occur every two to three days, depending upon how busy your feeders are and the daily temperatures. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, sugar water can spoil and become moldy in two days or less when temperatures reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit or greater. Check to make sure your hummingbird solution isn’t cloudy. That’s a danger sign indicating spoilage.

If your feeder has any black patches, that could indicate a dangerous mold buildup. Get right in there and clean out that feeder.

Small brushes like these can really help.

9. Buy Better Bird Feeders

Take your time and do your research when you’re considering purchasing a new bird feeder. Avoid wooden models or those that cannot be easily taken apart to clean and maintain. Make sure the tops and bottoms flip off, and there aren’t spaces within the design that can accumulate seed waste that will become rancid or moldy.

Try to find feeders made with sustainable materials, like recycled or recyclable plastics.

Do your homework and take the time to read the product reviews to learn as much as you can about the bird feeder you’re going to buy.

I recommend JC’s Wildlife feeders and Aspect Quick-Clean feeders. Both manufacturers make easy-to-clean models, and they’re made in the United States. They’re extremely durable and are worth a look.

JC’s Wildlife has a great line of easy-to-clean, recycled material birdfeeders. birdhouses and accessories.
They’re durable, made-in-America, and a great value. Check out their options here.

P.S.: What tricks and tools do you use to keep your bird feeding areas healthy and clean?

Have an idea you’d like to share? Tell me more at [email protected].

Note: Some of the links contained on our Site are affiliate links. If you click on these links and make a purchase, we will earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

11 Ways to Manage Squirrels at Bird Feeders

If given permission, squirrels will consume a hefty portion of the birdseed you put out for your feathered friends. These furballs eat as much (and as frequently) as my teenage son. The average gray squirrel eats about 4 ounces of food per day (that’s almost 2 pounds of food per week). Over the past few years, I’ve developed a solid strategy that helps reduce the raids by squirrels on my feeders while still allowing them a place in my animal-friendly ecosystem.

Using the right combination of foods that squirrels won’t eat, like safflower, nyjer, and white prosso millet seeds will immediately help reduce birdseed consumption by squirrels. Using special animal baffles on pole-mounted feeders and weather-dome covers above tube feeders will deter most squirrels. Where you place your bird feeders is also very important. Making sure your feeders are not directly under trees or near places where a squirrel can jump to your feeder (squirrels are known to jump 9 feet horizontally) can help reduce squirrel traffic. Experts recommend against adding cayenne pepper to birdseed or offering “hot” varieties of birdseed. Using Vaseline or other greasy products to smear on poles to make them slippery, or adding devices with shocking electrical currents, could hurt wildlife and should always be avoided.

1. Try Safflower Seed

According to Birds & Blooms Senior Digital Editor Lori Vanover, “Safflower is a thistle-like annual with bright orange and yellow flowers that’s grown to make cooking oils. The seeds, which are high in protein and fat, are slightly smaller than sunflower seeds. A hard white shell protects the meat and has a slightly bitter flavor.” The bitter flavor is what is said to deter most squirrels (and starlings, too). Remember, results may vary depending upon your neighborhood.

I have had success with both Wagner’s and Kaytee’s brands of white safflower seeds. If you have a Lowe’s nearby, you can save with their Audubon brand.

Lyric, a higher quality, premium bird food brand that I love, has a beautiful golden safflower seed variety. I was a little skeptical when I first tried it out this winter, but my birds went nuts over it. The golden safflower packs a bigger nutritional punch than the white safflower seed, too.

Safflower seed works best in hopper or platform-style feeders.

2. Offer Nyjer Seed

Nyjer seed (often mistakenly referred to as thistle seed) comes from a yellow daisy-like flower grown in specific regions of Africa and Asia. Most of the world’s nyjer seed crop is exported to the United States just for birdseed production. The tiny black seed is rich in oil, producing a high-fat favorite for birds like goldfinches, house finches, buntings, and pine siskins.

If you’re starting out offering nyjer to your backyard birds, begin slowly with a basic mesh wire feeder. I’ve hung them on shepherd hooks and deck poles. Begin by filling up your feeders halfway until you build sufficient traffic. Broadcast some seeds on the ground below your feeders to help attract attention. Mesh feeders attract moisture, so be sure to look for any clumping seed, mold, or rancid smells. Be patient. A new nyjer feeder sometimes takes a little time to get active.

I have observed that nyjer needs to be really fresh to be accepted by my birds. I’ve had them turn their beaks up at my nyjer feeders from time to time. I dump out the food, give the feeders a good cleaning, and start fresh. If your birds aren’t eating your seeds, they’re telling you something!

Store your unused nyjer in airtight containers in a cool, dry location.

I’ve used Kaytee and Wagner brand nyjer seed with success. Lyric brand is a premium level, high-quality nyjer seed, which I’ve also offered as a special treat. I recommend all three brands.

Lindy’s Seed Suggestions:

3. Millet seed is a good alternative

Millet or proso millet is a small, round, white, or red seed contained in birdseed blends often formulated for songbirds or finches. It’s also a seed that squirrels don’t particularly like, so it’s a good choice for your squirrel-reducing strategy. Millet is readily available in retail and online stores in branch or spray form. Birds can nibble off the tiny seeds from the pretty brown branches, which you can hang outside or offer on a platform feeder. Bulk millet seeds are a little trickier to find but are available online and in specialty feed stores.

Consider mixing up a custom blend of squirrel-resistant feed by combining small batches of safflower, millet, and nyjer.

4. Use a squirrel baffle on pole-mounted feeders

Baffles are clever devices that (usually) thwart a squirrel or other creature from successfully accessing a bird feeder. They are shaped like a disk or a cylindrical bell and made of plastic or metal. Installed correctly, they will “float” around the circumference of your bird feeder pole, blocking the path of a climbing animal. Baffles must be installed at the right height on a pole to be effective, usually at least four feet off of the ground. Squirrels can leap up and across considerable distances, so ensuring your pole is high enough to accommodate a baffle is essential before installation. Read directions carefully when mounting these baffles.

5. Use a weather dome on hanging feeders

If you have a tube feeder, weather-domes or dome baffles can effectively deter squirrels from your feeders. These are generally made of colored or clear plastic and have different slopes that range from a slightly curved plate to a large upside-down salad bowl design. Made with a center hook, you hang your tube feeder under the dome and then attach the dome to your shepherd hook, deck hook, or hanging pole. Squirrels cannot reach down past the dome to access the seed, plus you get the added benefit of having a weather guard over your tube feeder to keep your birds and your bird seed dry in inclement weather.

This heavy-duty weather dome plays two roles – it protects your feeder from the weather and helps deter squirrels.

Results vary with these, and some of the more tenacious squirrels find a way around these domes.

Avoid the cheaper plastic models as they break easily, especially if you live in a wind prone area.

6. Avoid squirrel-favorite seeds on platform feeders

Want to be an immediate hit in your neighborhood with squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, and other furry little creatures? Fill up a platform feeder with a birdseed mixture containing nuts, corn, or sunflowers, and stand back! Platform feeders are open on all four sides and low-to-the-ground, offering fantastic views of ground-feeding birds and any other creature that strolls on by. Some platform feeders can also hang off of a hook.

I love these types of feeders. But so do my squirrels (and our celebrity chipmunk Celeste and our pleasantly plump groundhog, Ms. March). The problem with using mixes with nuts, cracked or whole corn kernels, or sunflowers on your platform feeders, is that squirrels and other furry creatures will descend upon them like a free buffet. To reduce this seed-sapping traffic, you could try using alternate foods like safflower or white proso millet instead. You’ll still attract an exciting array of birds to your platforms but will limit or reduce squirrels.

Some platform feeders are enclosed by cages that only allow feathered guests to enter. While the concept appears sound, I’ve read mixed reviews online and would proceed with caution as these models are expensive. Some consumers report clever squirrels reach right in and grab the seeds from the platform, tip or shake the platform free of seed, or chew through the bars to get to the food.

7. Never coat bird poles or feeders with grease

Vaseline, WD-40, grease, homemade butters, and other slippery coatings may work to keep squirrel traffic down. Still, these remedies can be extremely harmful when they are either ingested or coat an animal’s fur or a bird’s feathers. You will find many blogs that recommend this method, but animal welfare groups and skilled ornithologists disagree. The Slinky method intrigues me, but then again, YouTube is filled with videos showing how squirrels outsmart one of my favorite vintage toys.

8. Avoid using hot birdseed or cayenne pepper

While there haven’t been scientific studies, “hot birdseed,” or birdseed with added capsaicin, the peppery ingredient that gives hot sauce its kick, has the potential to be harmful to both squirrels and birds. According to an excerpt at Audobon.org: “Use no additives in seed or nectar. Capsicum [the genus for hot peppers] irritates the eyes of humans and is likely to do so with birds as well. We do not recommend adding capsicum to birdseed.” Interestingly, they also caution that capsaicin is deadly to bees and other beneficial pollinators.

9. Create squirrel-friendly feeding zones

As an ardent backyard birder, I’ve employed a satellite feeder blueprint that seems to be working to keep competition down, traffic up and provides everyone who comes to visit a place to eat. Sure it needs a tweak now and then (especially when I get an over-enthusiastic flock of pigeons who decide my yard is their new Airbnb), but it has proven to be successful overall. At the outset, I will caution that results may vary. Observation and a willingness to experiment and adjust to your specific backyard conditions will lead you to better outcomes than an all-out surrender to the squirrels or the removal of your bird feeders altogether (don’t do that!)

In a nutshell, satellite feeders offer you a chance to spread the love of bird feeding generously. Perhaps you have a large platform feeder on your deck or patio with a good quality safflower seed to attract a wide variety of visitors. Sprinkle a tiny nyjer seed on that for an extra treat! Hang a mesh nyjer feeder on a shepherd’s hook in another spot in your yard. Are you feeling ambitious? You could add a large-capacity hopper feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds or a hearty birdseed mix to a sturdy tree branch with an overhead baffle to deter squirrels. Hopper feeders are also great when attached to a quality baffled pole system.

Now work on creating a squirrel-friendly feeding area. There are plenty of squirrel specialty feeders that hold corn cobs, whole corn kernels, and peanuts – treats that squirrels love. While they’re chowing down at their boutique restaurant, your other backyard birds are enjoying their meals at your other feeders.

Don’t forget to add a water feature to the mix as well. A good bird bath will help supply essential hydration to both birds and your furry friends. The first time you see an adorable squirrel flop down to take a nap after a full belly and a drink of cool water are worth the effort it takes to make a space of their own in your yard.

Just want one feeder and limited squirrels? That’s fine, too. Remember that every contribution to your bird-friendly ecosystem is essential. To limit squirrels at your single feeder, try using a seed that squirrels generally avoid.

10. Avoid using “fling” feeders or shock devices

There are bird feeders from well-known manufacturers that “fling” squirrels off with centrifugal force when they try to grab a meal. Some folks swear by these., not so much. I think it’s cruel. Add to that list anything that will send an electrical shock into an animal. As a responsible backyard birder and steward to your ecosystem, your motto should always be, “do no harm.” We can co-exist with nature if we take sensible and humane approaches. Hurling a squirrel across a backyard or giving them a “harmless light shock” is no way to treat a creature that’s just looking for a bite to eat.

11. Accept that no feeder is 100% squirrel proof

As an avid researcher of backyard birding products, I love reading reviews about squirrel-proof feeders—especially the one-star ratings on Amazon that include photos and videos. You can learn a lot from other people’s experiences, and I do recommend you dig down into the one- and two-star reviews on product sites to do your due diligence before you buy.

Squirrels are very clever animals, especially when they’re hungry. Their antics are priceless – stretching, bending, leaping, and holding on for dear life to get a little food to eat. When you’re choosing that 100% guaranteed squirrel-proof feeder, do understand that the squirrels often win and win big. Consider that when budgeting because squirrel-proof models and their accessories can be costly. Invest instead in a suitable, chew-proof bird feeder, a baffle, and appropriate seeds if you’re entirely focused upon ridding your yard of squirrels.

P.S.: What tricks and tools do you use to keep your bird feeding areas healthy and clean?

Have an idea you’d like to share? Tell me more at [email protected].

Note: Some of the links contained on our Site are affiliate links. If you click on these links and make a purchase, we will earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

2021 Mystery Bird Illness – A Must-Read Update

One of the most frustrating issues for me during this bird illness crisis has been waiting for news on what is causing this disease and when it will be safe to return to bird feeding. An excellent article from Scientific American published on August 13 may help shed some light on the situation with an added caution – it may still be too early for us to hang up our bird feeders just yet.

In May 2021, a mysterious illness impacting primarily young fledgling birds appeared in Washington, D.C., and surrounding states. By June, ten states reported birds with symptoms that included crusty and swollen eyes, blindness, lethargy, inability to stand, and tremors. Alerts from rehabilitation centers and state wildlife agencies advised residents in impacted areas to remove their feeders and birdbaths. At the same time, experts scrambled to find the cause of the mass casualty event. 

But with reports of dead and sick birds waning by the end of July, some experts recommended it could be safe to return to feeding in areas where sick and dying birds were no longer present.

To Feed or Not to Feed

In August, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources announced that 76 counties could return to bird feeding. A portion of the state is still part of the no-feed ban.

With decreasing reports of sick and dead birds, the Pennsylvania Game Commission opted to lift their statewide bird feeding ban.

In New Jersey, the Office of Fish and Wildlife Health and Forensics still encourages residents encountering sick or dead birds to keep their bird feeders and bird baths down for the time being.

In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, states where very few if any reports of the illness were identified, the ban on bird feeding remains in place. Connecticut joined the list recommending birders take down their feeders when reports of the disease hit their state in July.

Cornell Wildlife Health Lab “Not Overly Alarmed”

In an article posted on Ithaca.com, researchers at the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab remained “vigilant about the situation and researching causes.” Still, they were “not overly alarmed, especially as cases taper off and songbird populations remain stable.”

A researcher at Cornell pointed to the cicada emergence as a potential cause of the disease outbreak, though that conclusion is under intense scrutiny by other scientists.

Quoting the Ithaca.com article, The National Wildlife Federation released an upbeat video announcing it “should be ok to put bird feeders and baths out.”

Days later, they provided an update and clarification, noting their advice “could be premature.”

A Scientist’s Discovery

The Scientific American article is likely one of the best pieces I’ve read on the issues to date – and provides solid scientific-based advice to guide backyard birders.

Author Maddie Bender provides an in-depth interview with Brian Evans, a quantitative ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) in Washington, D.C. He discusses the early days when the disease began to emerge, the role of citizen scientists in reporting their findings, the lengths researchers are taking to solve the mystery, and what the public can do while we wait for answers.

With reports of sick birds from his neighbors in Maryland in May, Evans’ initial perspective on the emerging illness quickly changed. After a visit to City Wildlife, a D.C. area wildlife rehabilitator, he realized something serious was going on.

What I Learned

The takeaways from this piece are numerous.

First, our role as citizen scientists in the bird community is essential.

Being aware of what is going on in your eco-systems, no matter how small, can provide an early warning response to experts when you see something that doesn’t seem right.

By observing, recording, and reporting issues to your local wildlife rehabilitators or state wildlife agencies, you can be a part of helping keep our backyard birding populations safe and healthy.

Second, good science takes time.

While I knew that researchers were investigating the potential causes of this mystery outbreak, I didn’t realize the depth of what they had to do to reach scientifically sound results. It takes time. Plain and simple.

After ruling out common diseases with similar symptoms, in-depth testing is underway to dig deeper for answers. That means more complex testing, reaching out across the nation to learn from other impacted areas, establishing disease control groups, and more.

And finally, be patient and listen to the experts.

Everybody’s champing at the bit to put their bird feeders back up. I’ve heard so much language and so much pressure—“When can I start feeding birds again?” And my answer is always “Let’s wait and see what [the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center] says.” If it’s an infectious disease, and we care about birds, we shouldn’t be putting our feeders back.

Brian Evans, Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C.

Know your wild bird rehabilitators and your state wildlife agencies. Regularly log on to their websites and keep abreast of the situations impacting the wildlife in your community. If experts recommend you take down your feeders and birdbaths, heed their warnings until you know it is safe to return to feeding again.

If you’re able, support animal rehabilitators by donating money, needed supplies or your time to their facilities.

I’ll keep repeating myself on this topic, too: maintaining your bird feeding and birdbath areas should be a regular part of your responsible backyard birding habits. Cleaning your feeders the right way, removing fallen seed debris, using the right foods for your birds, and maintaining water sources are essential practices for common disease control.

Looking Ahead

The bright spot in this article is that Evans believes they eventually will have answers to this mystery illness. “I think it’ll be solved. To me, the biggest thing to solve first is whether it’s caused by an infectious disease or whether it’s caused by a toxin,” he says.

The most important thing we can do as responsible backyard birders?

“The most important thing that folks can do is just submit their observations. I’ve gotten reports from people, both through the bird mortality reporting form…bird enthusiasts should submit their observations and take a lot of pictures and videos of birds,” he adds.

Mystery Bird Illness Resources

-Watch The Connecticut Audubon Society’s 8/14/21 presentation “Dying Birds – What We Know & What We Don’t Know” (Brian Evans from the Scientific American article is interviewed)

-To review the most recent recommendations in impacted “mystery illness” regions including reporting portals review our state specific alert guide

-Find help for sick birds with our state specific wildlife rehabilitator list

-Help spread the word about the mystery bird illness with our fact sheet What You Should Know About Wild Bird Illness ’21

-Watch our YouTube video on the Mystery Bird Illness

Donate to City Wildlife, an animal rescue and rehabilitation center on the front lines of this mystery illness.

Update! 2021 Mystery Bird Illness

Backyard birders have been anxiously awaiting word that state wide bans on bird feeders and bird baths will end after a mysterious illness swept through 10 states and Washington DC. Since late spring, hundreds of birds have been sickened or died including hatchlings and fledglings. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the restrictions are going to be reversed any time soon.

A mysterious illness began sickening and killing birds in the Washington DC area in early May. A wide variety of backyard birds including young Blue Jays, American Robins, Common Grackles and European Starlings were being found with crusty eyes, blindness, lethargy and neurological symptoms. Despite treatment, many of the birds died or were humanely euthanized. The illness soon spread to several other states and by June, wildlife experts in impacted regions were recommending that bird feeders and bird baths be removed. Massachusetts and Rhode Island preemptively called for removals even though no disease was yet reported in those or nearby regions.

The Initial Outbreak is on the Decline

In July, specialized testing by several wildlife agencies and university labs was underway. While common illnesses have been ruled out, no clear cause of the outbreak has yet been discovered. Fortunately, new cases of the mystery illness seem to be on the downward trend. Experts from New Jersey, Washington DC and Kentucky all report steady declines in reports of songbirds with the spring illness. There have been no reports of impacted birds in New England states as well.

A New Illness is Impacting Crows & Raptors

But new concerns have arisen in the original Washington DC epicenter where a similar, unexplained disease is being seen in crows and raptors.

Jim Monsma, Director of City Wildlife, a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in Washington DC, shared news of this recent observation with The Bird Mom.

“Current concern is for crows (both Fish and American) and juvenile hawks, primarily Red-shouldered and Cooper’s. They are showing neurological symptoms and dying despite our treatment. Some them have tested positive for West Nile, and we see that every year. But we are getting more this year and some of the victims do not test positive for West Nile.”

Experts Still Recommend Removing Feeders & Bird Baths

As of early August, state wildlife experts were encouraging residents in areas impacted by the mystery illness to continue to refrain from feeding birds and remove bird feeders and bird baths.

In a recent email to The Bird Mom, Dr. Nicole Lewis, a Wildlife Veterinarian and Research Scientist with the New Jersey Office of Fish and Wildlife Health and Forensics noted, “We are still recommending that if you have had sick or dead fledglings or hatchlings on your property to keep your feeders down. I wish I could say differently but out of an abundance of caution it’s best to not feed at this time.”

Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife reported on July 30 that no large scale mortality events had occurred in the state that match the mystery illness profile.

“MassWildlife is asking the public to continue to refrain from feeding birds and putting out bird baths at this time as a precaution to avoid any risk to spreading the mysterious illness,” noted updates at their website.

Rhode Island is also not seeing the illness anywhere in the state but is continuing to urge residents to stop feeding birds for the time being.

House Finch Eye Disease Found in Kentucky

The no-feed rule may be a good idea in other states where a seasonal outbreak of House Finch eye disease is now occurring.

In their July 28 update, The Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife reported that an annual outbreak of House Finch eye disease, unrelated to the mystery illness, was circulating through the state.

They recommended residents who observe sick house finches or goldfinches at their feeders to take them down and clean them with a 10 percent bleach solution (one part bleach and nine parts water).

The Cornell University Chronicle recently wrote an interesting article about how backyard birders turned citizen scientists are contributing to new theories about immunity and House Finch eye disease.

7 Action Steps for Backyard Birders

If you see a sick or dead bird in your yard, proper reporting is key to helping researchers determine disease types and spread. You can take these seven action steps as a responsible backyard birder:

-If you find a sick bird, do not touch it with your bare hands. First, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator to ask for guidance. Try not to touch a sick/injured bird unless you are asked to do so. Remember, it is illegal to care for most wild birds in your home. Carefully follow your rehabilitator’s directions. Always wear gloves if touching a sick bird.

-If you find a dead bird, contact your state wildlife agency to report your findings. Carefully follow their directions.

-If you dispose of a dead bird, bury it in a very deep hole to prevent scavengers from digging it up and consuming it. Preferably, double bag the bird’s carcass and dispose of it in your trash.

-Always keep your pets away from sick or dead birds and the areas in which they were present.

-Practice safe personal hygiene. Wear gloves if you handle a wild bird. Wash hands thoroughly afterwards.

-Follow your state wildlife agency alerts and take down bird feeders and bird baths when recommended.

-Practice good backyard birding housekeeping by regularly cleaning your bird feeders and bird baths.

Additional Resources

To review the most recent recommendations in impacted “mystery illness” regions including reporting portals review our state specific alert guide

Find help for sick birds with our state specific wildlife rehabilitator list

Help spread the word about the mystery bird illness with our fact sheet What You Should Know About Wild Bird Illness ’21

Watch our YouTube video on the Mystery Bird Illness

2021 Mystery Bird Illness – 11 Things You Should Know

Experts are baffled by a mysterious bird illness that began in late spring and has now spread to ten different states and Washington, DC. On July 14, Massachusetts and Rhode Island added bird feeder and bird bath removal warnings as a precaution although no symptomatic birds were reported in either state.

The first confirmed cases emerged in Washington DC and surrounding areas in May, although some researchers believe the unknown disease may have started as early as late March or April. Primarily young songbirds are being infected and show symptoms such as crusty, swollen eyes and blindness. Neurological impacts are also being observed and include loss of balance, inability to stand, unusual neck movements, and vocalization abnormalities. Rehabilitators have tried to save sick birds, but the unknown illness has been challenging and many birds have died while under their skilled care. 

Here are 11 things you should know about this mysterious wild bird illness and what you can do while researchers are searching for the cause and a cure.

What kind of birds are getting sick?

The illness is being observed primarily in four species of birds including young Blue Jays, American Robins, European Starlings, and Common Grackles.

Other bird species reported to be impacted include the Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, House Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee and the Carolina Wren.

Adult birds are also falling ill although the vast majority of reported illnesses are in the young.

What areas are the birds from?

The first reports of an unusual bird illness began in May in Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Cases then appeared in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are on the no-feed list as of July 14, but no sick birds have been reported in either state.

This state specific alert guide will link you to the latest government or wildlife agency updates in impacted regions.

What symptoms are the birds showing?

Birds are being observed with eye symptoms including crusty discharge, swelling and blindness. Birds can appear disoriented or lethargic. Neurological symptoms include lack of balance, difficulty standing, and neck issues. Some birds have been observed “star gazing” or extending their necks upwards and staring skyward in a transfixed manner. Other birds have been noted as vocalizing excessively.

What is causing the illness?

Experts know more of what is not causing the illness than what is. Several agencies and university laboratories are working in conjunction to rule out common pathogens and causes. An exact finding is still elusive.

According to the latest statement from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources: “The following pathogens have not been detected in any birds tested, based on results received to date: Salmonella and Chlamydia (bacterial pathogens); avian influenza virus, West Nile virus and other flaviviruses, Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses, herpesviruses and poxviruses; and Trichomonas parasites. Transmission electron microscopy and additional diagnostic tests, including microbiology, virology, parasitology, and toxicology are ongoing.”

Early on, a connection to the 17-year Brood X cicada emergence was explored. Some researches believed pesticides used to curb infestations or a fungus plaguing the cicadas may have been causing the birds who had eaten the bugs to become sick. Scientists studying the illness are now skeptical of this theory.

Should I stop feeding my birds?

Relying on what the vast majority of experts are recommending, the most cautious answer is yes, for the time being.

Because birds congregate close together at feeders and that can lead to pathways for disease to spread, wildlife officials in impacted areas are urging residents to remove their bird feeders and stop feeding birds until they can get a better handle on what is causing this illness. In some states, that warning is reserved for counties or specific areas where sick birds have been found. In other areas, it applies to the entire state, regardless of whether sick or dead birds are present.

Most recently, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have issued a full state-wide ban on bird feeding even though no reports of illness have been received.

There is no indication this disease is being spread to domesticated birds like chickens and ducks, though experts advise owners to be particularly vigilant about following proper bio-security practices.

This state specific alert guide will provide guidance on what you should do with bird feeders and bird baths in your backyard.

Should I take down my bird baths?

Most wildlife experts are advising that residents in impacted areas remove all bird feeders and bird baths until more information is learned about this illness.

Remember to invert or store your bird baths properly so rainwater cannot accumulate and potentially spread disease.

How do I clean my feeders and bird baths?

Regardless of whether you live in an area impacted by this illness, proper feeder and bird bath hygiene is critical year-round. You should be cleaning your feeders and bird bath at least every two weeks with a 10% beach solution. That means one part bleach mixed with nine parts water. Clean all parts of the feeder thoroughly. Toothbrushes, baby bottle brushes, or kitchen cleaning brushes are ideal for this task. No seed residue should remain in your feeders so get into those nooks and crannies.

Always wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after touching your feeders or bird baths.

Vinegar and cleaners that do not offer disinfectant protection will not kill the accumulated germs and bacteria on your feeders.

After cleaning, allow your feeders and bird baths to air dry. Store them away until you can put them out and fill them up again.

Should I clean up the areas around my bird feeders?

Now is a good time to extend your bird eco-system housekeeping to the areas around your feeders. Rake or sweep up any bird seed hulls or leftover bird food and discard it in the trash. Clean accumulated food, dirt, and leaves under your decks, especially if you use your decks to feed birds. You may be surprised to discover just how much bird seed waste can accumulate under stairs and decks!

Take the time to rinse off any item around your yard with accumulated bird waste including fence posts, deck railings, trellises, patio furniture and clothing line poles. You can use a product like Poop Off to help you with this chore.

If you anticipate heavy fall and winter feeding, consider adding a covering of mulch in the area under your feeders. You can also add seed catchers on feeders to minimize ground spillage and seed waste.

How do I store my unused bird food?

It’s important to make sure you store your unused bird food for the duration of this feeding shutdown. Summer heat and moisture are enemies of bird seed and can lead to mold and spoilage.

Pack up your bird seed in an airtight container. Securely seal the tops of all bags. Store in a cool, dry location preferably inside a garage or dry basement.

When you open and serve your bird seed again, check it for any signs of mold, bad smells, or bug infestations. Discard any kind of food that just doesn’t look or smell right.

What should I do if I find a sick or dead bird?

If you find a sick or injured bird, contact your local wild bird rehabilitator for assistance. This state specific wildlife rehabilitator list will help guide you in the regions identified as having cases of this wild bird mystery illness. Take photos or video of the bird. This could be very helpful to your rehabilitator or state agency investigating the disease.

Remember that most wild bird species are protected under the terms of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which prohibits unlicensed individuals from a variety of wild bird-related activities, including caring for sick or injured birds. Don’t try to care for a sick or injured bird that you may find.

If you find a dead bird you believe to be infected by this illness, take photos and submit your sighting to your local state wildlife agency. Many states have already established online tracking or special emails to track cases.This reporting is extremely important in helping identify suspected cases and tracking the spread of the disease. You can find your state’s reporting link or email in this state specific alert guide.

You can dispose of any dead bird by double-bagging it and placing it in with your trash. Alternately, you can bury it deeply in the ground.

Never touch a sick or dead bird with your bare hands. Practice safe hygiene, wear gloves, and thoroughly clean your hands after touching a sick or dead bird. Keep all domestic pets away from sick or dead birds.

I miss feeding my birds. What should I do?

Our feathered friends bring us so much joy, it’s hard to send them on a sudden vacation away from our decks, patios and yards. But there are plenty of things you can do to keep busy while scientists and medical experts work to solve this mystery.

First, make a commitment to take care of your backyard birding housekeeping. Don’t count on summer rain to clean and disinfect your feeders and watering areas. Get to work giving all of your birding areas a thorough cleaning. Turn your thoughts to fall feeding and plan ahead. Consider replacing old, worn out feeders with new recyclable or easy-to-clean models. There are some great American-made choices on the market now like these and these.

Visit your local garden center and purchase bird-friendly flowers, shrubs or trees that will provide natural food sources for years to come. You can plant these wonderful natural bird feeders right in the ground or in containers on your deck or patio.

Next, work to become a citizen scientist by learning the signs of this mystery illness and keeping your eyes open for sick or dead birds. Remember that birds get sick, injured and die for a variety of reasons including predation, window strikes, car collisions, accidents, etc. Don’t panic if you find a sick, injured or dead bird. Use our state specific wildlife rehabilitator list and call an expert for trusted guidance. Reporting sightings of birds you think may be sick is important to researchers and government agencies involved in this issue.

Have a good social media following? Help spread the word to your fellow backyard birders, your town’s animal control officer or local media. Share this What You Should Know About Wild Bird Illness ’21.

The good news is that it’s summer and our feathered friends have abundant natural food sources around them in which to survive and take care of their young. So don’t be anxious that removing your feeders or bird baths will cause your birds to go hungry. Some of us pride ourselves on our “regulars,” the birds we already know by sight and habit. Don’t worry, they’ll remember you and they’ll be back before you know it.

 

What to Do When You Find Bird Eggs

If you invite wildlife into your backyard, you also open the door to their related day-to-day dramas and adventures. You’ll soon learn your creatures’ routines, habits and quirks, and many struggles to simply survive another day. Springtime in New Jersey brings lots of baby birds to my backyard. Hand-in-hand comes the threat of hungry predators, the competition amongst brood parasites, nest damage, and orphaned eggs and nestlings. As a responsible backyard birder, it’s essential to know what to do (and what not to do) if you come across baby bird eggs in the wild.

It’s illegal to try to hatch most species of wild bird eggs in the United States by yourself. So scrap any plans of purchasing a chick incubator and bringing those eggs to life. If you discover an egg in your backyard, do a little detective work before you touch it or try to put it back in a nest. See if you can determine what type of bird the egg came from and where its nest may be located. Look carefully to see if a nest is nearby. Don’t always assume that a nest is in a tree or birdhouse, either. Many species of birds nest on the ground or in unusual cracks and crevices around our homes. Check the egg carefully for any damage. If the egg appears whole and you’re confident where it came from, quickly and carefully place it back in the nest. Don’t hang around too long as parent birds may think you’re a predator and be permanently spooked away from the nesting site. If you’re unsure about what to do, always contact your local wild bird rehabilitator for help. 

Know the Law About Bird Eggs

In the United States, most species of wild birds are federally protected under a special law called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). More than a century ago, forward-thinking policy makers recognized that many bird species were on the brink of extinction. Hunting, consumption as gourmet food, and the use of bird feathers for adornments was causing this growing crisis.

The MBTA provides essential protections for most migratory bird species. Simply put, it is against federal law to kill, capture, keep, sell, trade, transport, or care for wild birds, their eggs, or nests unless directed by the Department of Interior United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

While you can contact a wild bird rehabilitator and transport an injured bird or orphaned egg (when practical) into their skilled care, taking care of a wild bird or trying to hatch wild bird eggs yourself is illegal.

Don’t Incubate the Egg Yourself

You already know that keeping a wild bird egg is illegal, but take a moment to think of the practical implications of trying to incubate an egg and then raise a chick on your own. Eggs need special care to hatch. You must maintain the right temperature, humidity and regularly turn the eggs to produce a viable chick.

While incubators might allow an egg to hatch, would you know what to do next to keep the bird alive? Babies need specialized nutrition on a regular basis for up to 16 hours a day for the first few weeks of their lives. Feeding is almost a surgical process requiring a careful hand and eye to make sure the hatchling is eating enough and digesting properly. If the baby survives and grows, it will socially imprint on you as its caregiver. This bird will never have the chance to learn proper behavorial or survival skills and live in the wild as it should.

There is a high probability that the bird egg you find outdoors is already damaged, infertile, or likely not going to hatch even under ideal incubation conditions. Don’t try to do what is both illegal and inhumane to a creature that should be free.

Identify the Bird Egg

Bird eggs end up discarded from nests for many reasons. They may have been knocked out of their nests in a storm or during a fight with a predator. Some may be infertile or never hatched and were nudged out by a parent. Others could be plucked out by a brood parasite like the Brown-headed Cow Bird that replaces native bird eggs with their own and relies on the foster bird to raise their young.

Don’t assume that a bird egg only falls from a nest above your head. That egg may be right where it’s supposed to be. Birds can nest in bushes, fields, grasslands, brush piles, lawns, flower baskets, decks, driveways, beaches and other flat spaces. That’s why it’s really important to try to identify what type of bird egg you’ve found and what type of nest it may come from.

There’s a great tool to do this at NestWatch.org from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Click on the Nest and ID feature to view different birds from your region, their egg types and in what kind of nests they raise their young. Googling search terms related to your egg, like its size, shape, color, and unique markings may also help give you more information about the egg you’ve found.

Identify the Type of Nest

Once you know what type of egg you’ve found, try to identify the type of nest it may come from. We tend to think of a traditional round nest made of grass or straw that’s located in a tree. But birds nest with all kinds of materials in all kinds of places. There are the traditional bird houses and trees, of course, but there are also the non-traditional dryer vents, store signs, flower pots, light fixtures, holes in houses, electric poles and nesting spots for our feathered friends. These may not be convenient or aesthetically pleasing spots for us humans, but they’re perfectly acceptable for raising a bird family.

Rely on the NestWatch.org tool to help identify common nests found in your region of the United States.

Take Extra Care with Ground Nests

If you’ve discovered the egg you found is from a ground nest, your best bet is to leave the egg where you found it and let nature take its course. If the egg has been laid in an area where it could easily be stepped on or crushed by a vehicle, try to block off the area. Don’t hover near the nest, especially if the babies eventually hatch.

Gently Check the Egg for Damage

Before you return an egg to a nest, check it first for damage. Cracks or oozing liquid could indicate the egg wouldn’t be viable even if you found a nest for it. The exception to this is if you see any indication that a hatchling is actively pecking its way out its egg.

Carefully Re-Nest the Egg

If the egg appears whole and undamaged (or if you see a hatchling trying to emerge from an egg), quickly and carefully return it to the nest you’ve located. If you’re not sure what to do, stay calm and reach out to a wild bird rehabilitator who will walk you through the correct and humane steps to take in this situation.

Don’t Believe the Human Scent Myth

There is a widely-held belief that if you touch a bird egg or a baby bird, its parents will detect your human scent and abandon the nest. Birds simply don’t have the same olfactory or smelling senses that humans possess.  Birds will become spooked by human activity around their nests, however. They will become very protective, attacking any perceived predator, or abandon a nest full of eggs or babies, if they feel threatened.

Stay Away from the Nest

Like eager relatives, we want to check on the new babies in our backyards and see how they’re growing. But Mother Nature kindly requests you give new bird parents and their hatchlings lots of privacy. Although it’s hard to do, and baby bird photographs are just so cute, avoid the temptation to hover around an active bird nest. If you want to take a very quick peek, do so when you’re confident the mama and papa birds are out doing chores. Too much activity around a nest triggers defensive behaviors including dive-bombing visitors or even the total abandonment of a nest.

Questions? Contact a Wild Bird Rehabilitator

The best resource for help in any situation involving a bird, their eggs, or nests, can be found in your local wild bird rehabilitator. Every state has professionals who are specially trained to care for our wild birds, and most are only a phone call or email away. Don’t be nervous about reaching out for help. These folks have big bird hearts just like us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My 3 Favorite Bird Feeders

Those who know me well know I love three things best (besides my kids, of course!); a good book; Li-Lac chocolates; and a new bird feeder. There are a few feeders I own and regularly use that really stick out as my true blue heroes. Whether they hit the mark on beauty, reliability, sustainability, budget or overall enjoyment, these are my top three recommendations.

Number One

  • JC’s Wildlife Fly Through Feeder (Etsy)
  • Large Size
  • $74.39/Free Shipping
  • Medium Size
  • $64.49/Free Shipping
  • Available in red, yellow, green and gray colors

My first premium ground feeder was purchased from my Wild Birds Unlimited store in Paramus, New Jersey. My second, and the one I like best, is from JCs Wildlife. Both sit on my deck today and feed my growing flock of feathered and furry friends.

I first discovered ground feeders in my Duncraft catalog and they intrigued me.

I had grown up on traditional tube and hopper feeders in the 1970’s and had always thought that all birds ate from up on high. That’s not true at all. Doves, sparrows, cow birds, cardinals, tit mice, chickadees, blue jays and juncos are frequent visitors to both of my covered feeders. I also enjoy the antics of our frequent squirrels, our celebrity chipmunk, Celeste, and the very rotund and equally hungry groundhog we’ve named Ms. March.

Our JC’s Wildlife Fly Through Feeder (I have a large model) has a wide peaked green roof that keeps seeds and guests dry during inclement weather. Sturdy legs give the feeder just a little height and improves air flow around the feeder’s easy-to-clean, lift out plastic tote seed caddy (love this). The caddy holds a good supply of seed and the dual-dish design allows you to offer one type of seed on one side of tray, and another type of seed on the other.

I’ve also observed that the space beneath the feeder serves as a hiding spot when visiting creatures need a quick place to take cover.

It’s easy to maintain and looks like it is built to last with sturdy recycled materials. I’m keeping with my aim to try to buy more sustainable products. Plus, my purchase supports a company who makes their products in the United States. My American-based backyard birders should try to do that as often as they can!

I’ve paired my Fly Through Feeder with an open platform feeder below and surrounded them both with lush bee and butterfly friendly flowers in spring and summer and a hug of sheltering evergreens in the fall and winter.

This micro rest stop is always open to the wildlife who discover my deck in their travels no matter the season.

A ground feeder does bring its challenges, like the increased need for cleaning and seed-sapping visits from furry neighbors like squirrels, chipmunks and groundhogs. They’re part of my eco-system, too, so I don’t mind, though I do take extra care to clean up frequently which does add time to my chore list.

Number Two

If I was forced to have only one feeder in my yard (gasp), the Garden Treasures Hopper would easily be the one. Not only is it budget-friendly, but it holds enough seed to host hungry flocks of my feathered friends. It has lasted me through some pretty tempestuous East Coast weather!

This feeder holds a full 6 pounds of seed and is easy to clean.

It attracts a huge variety of birds with its six generous feeding ports. The 12-inch coated looped hanging cord does not rust and works with deck clamps, shepherd hooks, tree branches and more.

I have used these feeders for two years and I see little wear from sun, wind, and precipitation. The drainage trays are well constructed and help keeps seeds dry. The overhanging plastic roof provides limited protection from the elements.

The closing feature requires a little practice to get the roof to close snugly. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t have squirrels flipping up the top to rob you of your seeds. This feeder has a much better closing system than other feeders than just rely on flimsy plastic tabs or easy-to-open flip tops.

You can fill this workhouse feeder with black oil sunflower seeds, safflower, cracked corn, or mixed seeds.

As your feathered visitors stop by for a meal, the feeder may sway a bit causing some seed to fall away from the tray ports. Fear not! That will provide you with a nice way to view your ground feeding birds. Plan your housekeeping accordingly.

If you are just starting out as a birding enthusiast, pair up this feeder with a shepherd hook and some black oil sunflower seed to create a budget-friendly, bird feeding magnet!

Number Three

I am particularly nostalgic about this dual-purpose birdbath and bird seed bowl as it was the very first bird feeder I set out in my new home in 2019.

I really cannot say enough good things about this product.

As I watch from my kitchen window, I see a world of birds and furry creatures that make me smile. No matter the weather, from early dawn to deep dusk, there is a regular parade of hungry diners who wait in line for their turn to chow down.

In terms of design, there are a couple of features that make it better than other, more expensive competitive products. The first is the durable, adjustable clamp. It’s made of strong, weather-resistant black powder coated steel to prevent rust. It’s attached to the steel bowl ring in one solid piece.

What makes this bird bath a favorite is the heavy-duty polypropylene clay-color bowl with a ridged lower lip that fits with a secure “click” into the supporting ring. When it gets windy (and it does here in New Jersey), the bowl doesn’t blow away. And when it’s full of bird and furry friend traffic at lunchtime, the bowl stays right in place.

I’ve read some reviews and seen reader photos where the bowl tips as the clamp isn’t secured to a level surface. Simply insert a wooden shim as you’re adjusting the clamp to solve that problem and bring your item level. If you’re using this for bird food, remember there are no drainage holes. You’ll need to clean out any wet or old food to prevent mold or spoilage.

My first bowl lasted about two years before I had to replace it. I couldn’t find a way to replace just the bowl, so I had to buy the whole unit again. I left the ring clamp up on the deck and it’s enthusiastically used as a bird perch.

This is one of my top choices for a bird bath, a bird bowl feeder, or a gift for a bird lover.

While these three are my favorites, I’ll be introducing you to more bird feeder designs in coming posts. I’m especially excited to try out some new hummingbird feeders I’ve just received! Stay tuned for more news soon.

xoxo Lindy

P.S. Have a bird feeder you love and recommend? Tell me more! Write to me at [email protected]

 

The Red-Winged Blackbird

It was the Cooper Hawk’s swift hunt into my yard that sent the red-winged blackbird crashing into my kitchen window. I’ve heard this before. It’s a terrible sound that sends me running to the deck, hands quickly pulling on gloves, hoping to see that my little winged victim is shaking off the impact in a nearby tree. That was not to be. The stricken blackbird was half buried into the soft snow that had been falling steadily for two days.

I truly thought he was dead.

I knelt down with calming words and scooped up the bird into my purple gloved hands and brought him right to my chest to try to begin to warm him.

My daughter was in the house already getting a box and a heating pad. We knew the drill, taught to us by volunteers at our local wild bird rehabilitation center:

Gently lay the bird into a box with air holes and let the box rest on top of a warming blanket set to low. Carefully open the box outdoors two hours later and release. Call us back if the bird doesn’t fly away.

It had worked with the bird strikes we had already during the year. All but one had survived and were quickly repatriated back into the yard.

I sat on a stiffed back chair in the living room and held the blackbird in my one shielding hand, covering its head in calming darkness with the other. Its heartbeat was strong against my finger. A good sign, I thought. Keep beating, I silently implored. I held it close to my chest, a stark contrast against the white of my long-sleeved t-shirt. Soon I began softly brushing off the snow that had become tucked under its wing. Its feet were contorted. It wasn’t moving.

I said a little prayer. Keep beating. Keep beating.

Suddenly the blackbird’s eyes began blinking. One side. Then the other. Good, I thought. Good. I’ll just sit with this for a while, here on the chair, keeping you warm.

I had a good hold on the little one. If you’ve handled wild birds before – and I’ve only done so a few times, it seems like there is a moment when a bird regains its strength after being stunned. A sudden shiver awakens it. It’s ready to return to its home. Its body gets fortified with some kind of new energy upon reawakening.  There, it happened, suddenly, not too strongly, but it was there. A moment when you knew that the bird was likely going to be okay.

I wanted the blackbird to be warm so I sat with him for a little while longer like a worried mother with a crying baby.

Part of it was selfish voyeurism. I had never seen a red-winged blackbird so close up. He was beautiful. There was knowledge in his eyes. I cannot explain it. Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing here, but the bird seemed to be taking everything in. He wasn’t panicking or squirming against my hands as I softly offered maternal entreaties that everything was going to be okay.

It had been a difficult week. The snow storms had come hard and furious. My dervishes were whirling and tipping precariously with every new chore added to my growing to-do list.

My teenage son suddenly announced he was “done” with homeschooling and wanted to begin as a Sophomore in our local public high school. Immediately. I’ve always trusted the autonomy of my children’s decisions. I look at my role as a mother in terms of being a good Sherpa. Tell me where you’d like to go and we’ll figure out the best path for you to get there. My childhood lacked solid adult guidance and I was damned if my own children would get mired down in the poor choices I had made for lack of a guiding hand and a few words of wisdom.

Still though, my last child, my only son, was growing up and growing away.

I wasn’t lost on the irony of holding this little bird in my hand and perhaps mothering him with a little more wistful zeal than practical medical triage. My brain was making connections. I was probably overtired. Or just realizing how much my world had changed under my feet during the past year of Covid, my business closing, my divorce.

“He’s ready,” I said, determinedly rising from my chair and walking over to my daughter. She tugged open the sliding deck door. Standing outside, I opened my hand gently expecting the bird to fly away, but he perched on my palm, aware, awake and pensive.

“Maybe he’s still stunned,” I wondered. I waited a moment in the frigid February cold. It was still snowing and I was outdoors in just a long-sleeved t-shirt and sneakers. I didn’t want me or the bird to get any colder. I turned to go back inside and there was a little movement from the bird that ran right up my arm.

It was like he was saying, “No wait, don’t go, I just want to be here for a moment longer.”

So I acquiesced, watching in awe as the red-winged blackbird perched on my wide open palm eyeing the other birds at the feeders and the falling winter snow. It was a moment of complete wonderment.

It had to happen of course. The bird flew off into a nearby tree, gathered his wits about him and returned to his day.

It was time for me to return to my day, too.   

xoxo Lindy

P.S.: Birds come visit our world and sometimes leave deep impressions with us. It’s almost mystical, but we shake those visits off like a coincidence. But are they? Have a special bird story you’d like to share? Tell me more at [email protected].

My Backyard Birding Journey

When I was a little girl, my father taught me gardening basics and sparked my lifelong love of nature and all wee creatures. That tough, argumentative New York City man longed to be a country farmer, but his dreams were dashed by the complicated circumstances of his life. So our suburban backyard became his homestead, with a fresh vegetable garden where he employed organic gardening practices (before it was cool), built sturdy wooden bird houses and feeders, installed the ubiquitous 1970’s cement bird bath, and even found room for a pair of pink plastic flamingos.

Moving to an urban city when I had my own family, I lived in high rises and could only look down longingly at small patches of green.

 
You were lucky if you heard a bird call 39-stories into the sky.

After a series of personal tragedies which included the deaths of my father and two younger brothers in addition to the sudden loss of my home after a flood exposed an environmental nightmare, I gathered my family, our three rabbits, and whatever belongings we had left, and rented a little house in Northern New Jersey.

The brick exterior reflected strength at a time I needed it most. The small, albeit neglected backyard offered me a chance to dig in the dirt again. The years of stress, profound grief, and deep personal loss had taken its toll.

I didn’t even know who I was anymore.

My kitchen has a window I like to refer to as my television. It’s five feet wide and runs almost the length of the green granite countertop where I stand doing the dishes each day. It looks out over my backyard and a small cluster of houses that rub shoulders with each other, six in all in a tight, little square. There’s always something going on.

One cold, rainy morning, I watched a little bird perching on my deck railing, dipping its wet beak into a dish I had set out with seed. That was my first bird feeder. I watched that sweet, persistent soul brave the weather in the simple act of eating breakfast. It brushed off the pelting rain, put down its head, and got to work for the day. I didn’t have an epiphany. I was still too weary for anything as ambitious as that. But it did make me stop feeling so sorry for myself. I admired that little bird. Despite the cold, despite the frigid rain, it did what it had to do to live.

You can learn a lot about life from birds if you take the time to quietly watch them. I know I do. And I pushed myself that day to work a little harder on putting my own head down and getting on with the work of life.

But the fates weren’t done tangling with me.

The divorce came first in 2019, after 21 years of marriage. Then the pandemic hit in March of 2020 and brought down the successful business my ex-husband and I had built together and still maintained as partners. By this time, I had lived in my rented home for two years. I had planted bunches of cheery spring bulbs, lush summer perennials, and my own organic garden, just like my father had taught me more than 40 years ago. I erected bird houses, bird feeders and watering holes for my growing flock of feathered (and furry) friends. There was a great peace in being outside, headphones on, covered in dirt, participating with nature. It was a source of healing that reinvigorated me in ways that I couldn’t yet comprehend.

I was brought to my knees wondering what to do next as the pandemic raged on, my marriage was over and my business closed.

Who would hire a 54-year-old ex-entrepreneur with no college degree?

Sure, I had run a successful business for almost 20 years, but how did that translate to the real world of employment in a degree-demanding era? I revised my resume and started applying for jobs online. Nothing. Not even a peep for weeks.

I finally received a call from an employer who was hiring immediately and wanted to interview me over the phone. Sitting in my bedroom, I gathered my confidence and transitioned into selling mode with the goal of getting this job.

In the past, I would breeze through job interviews. As a freelance copywriter, most of my work was gained from word of mouth from other happy clients. I was a hard worker and aimed to please. My portfolio spoke for itself. But I had spent the last 20 years building a fitness oriented business – a specialized indoor niche that didn’t translate well in the Covid-era job market. And everyone wanted a college degree which I just didn’t have. I hung up the phone dejected. My son was standing next to me. “How did I sound?” I croaked. He gave me a hug of encouragement and told me not to worry.

But I was worried. I was very worried.

I couldn’t crumble – I had two teenagers beside me looking to their mom for strength. I’m not one to cry or sit idly by, either. My DNA is far stronger than that. It reaches back to Ireland to my great grandmother Catherine who raised five children by herself after losing her husband to tuberculosis. In the 1930’s, my grandmother Rita, full of city moxie, plucked her infant son with Down syndrome out of sanatorium, despite a doctor’s insistence to keep him institutionalized for life.

My own mother, a high school dropout, announced to my then unemployed father she was getting a “little job” as a telephone operator back in the 1970’s to help pay the bills. Her salary kept our family afloat when New York City went through staggering unemployment in the trade’s industry, leaving my father without a job for years. And my mom ended up retiring from that “little job” – as a top manager for AT&T.

I would not give up. But getting up and going, now that’s where it got tricky.

When one is over 50 years of age and tasked with suddenly having to reinvent themselves both personally and professionally, I’ve discovered the challenge lies in not creating someone new. Rather, it is centered upon understanding and respecting what makes, you, well, you. I began to understand it did not require any invention at all. What it required was a good dose of honesty and ambition for just myself and no one else.

That was a very new concept for me because I had structured my entire life on helping others. I advocated for my family through our multiple profound tragedies. I focused on making sure my two wonderful children graduated college – something I could never accomplish myself. (One down, one to go there – I’m so proud of these two incredible, creative souls.) I quietly stayed in the background and worked hard to boost my ex-husband’s profile as a professional coach. I helped build a successful business that was a reflection of his dreams and passions.

But where was I in the total picture?

After a few weeks of unanswered job queries and that disastrous phone interview, I began to have a very sinking feeling deep in the pit of my belly. My resume had really grey hair. And it was showing.

Many of my native skills were now available on $5-per-project virtual job sites. And no amount of “go-get-‘em-girl-power” was going to change that any time soon. So I pivoted and turned to the hustle. I’ve freelanced before, I thought, and I could do that again. I reached out to business colleagues that I hadn’t spoken to in years. The proposition was almost irresistible. In exchange for a testimonial, I would work to help build their brands for free – marketing, copywriting, website development – whatever they needed. The first two emails I sent produced positive results. I was back in business.

Not so fast, though.

Although I worked for free for almost two months with one client, a contract never developed. Providently, I did click with another former colleague who is now one of the three founders of the TheBirdMom.com site. Denise is a dynamic, whip smart woman whom I always admired tremendously as my boss in my corporate life two decades ago. We brainstormed for days on ideas of how we could work together. In my mind, I was ready to go for something I really wanted to do. What would my ideal job consist of? What would really get me out of bed in the morning, challenge me mentally, and make enough money to pay the bills?

I looked out my window and returned to the birds.

Denise and I met over Zoom almost every week during the Covid-19 lockdown (and yes, I had to learn how to attend a Zoom meeting). She became my motivation to think and innovate. I really do have so much to thank her for. She’s quite the amazing woman with her own entrepreneurial fire that burns bright. Those meetings got me dusting off the cobwebs to my ambitions and gave me the impetus to believe in myself again. To think big. To consider what I wanted to do now at this stage of my life, for me and for my future. I felt scared and excited and really thrilled to begin something new. And thanks to Denise, and her friend, Susan (artist extraordinaire and lover of fonts), The Bird Mom hatched in the fall of 2020 (sorry, couldn’t resist).

It hasn’t been easy, but it has been one of the most challenging and transformative periods of my life.

Now I don’t know where this will go, but I’m happy we’re on our way and you’re joining us on our journey. The Bird Mom will open you to all of the amazing connections I have had with my backyard birds over the last few years. The lessons I’ve learned through observations and experiments. The parallels to our own personal struggles that I see in nature every day. And the peace and healing that our feathered friends can impart upon us when we really need it most.

Thank you for taking the time to visit us. Drop me an email at [email protected] and share your comments, suggestions and your own bird stories. I invite you to become one of the flock.

With warmest regards, Lindy

AFFILIATIONS

Lindy is a proud member of the following organizations dedicated to protecting wild birds