Nova Scotia

To feed or not to feed? Bird lovers are getting conflicting advice

Different views are circulating on the contribution of bird feeders to disease spread, including avian influenza.

Government agencies say poultry farms with nearby feeders are the most at risk

small bird on a log.
Avian flu is affecting domestic and wild birds in Canada and around the world. (Mike Evans/CBC)

Feeding the birds during fall and winter months is a much-loved tradition for many Nova Scotians, but there is increasing concern about the role that could play in the spread of bird flu and other diseases.

Anyone looking for definitive advice on the safety of their feeders will be disappointed, however, with at least one bird expert calling it a "controversial topic."

Diane LeBlanc, president of the Nova Scotia Bird Society, says avian influenza usually spreads through waterfowl so the risk of it spreading at feeders is very low unless ducks are nearby. And colder temperatures lessens the risk of pathogens spreading, she says.

But a wildlife biologist and president of Nature Nova Scotia, Bob Bancroft, told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon that bird feeders encourage birds to congregate and could expose them to a host of diseases including salmonella, trichomonosis (also known as trichomoniasis)  and avian influenza.

Bancroft said people should not feed birds this year, especially near poultry farms, because of the danger of spreading bird flu which is raging around the world.

Bird feeders are popular in winter. (Submitted by Tena Reid)

"Consider your neighbours if you're going to continue to feed, and I would advise you seriously not to," he said.

"Because one of those little sparrows or goldfinch could turn around and go to the poultry farm and there could be a dead flock in no time at all."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency tracks the disease in farms and has recorded four infected properties in Nova Scotia, affecting about 12,000 chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. There are no current outbreaks in the province.

Bob Bancroft is a wildlife biologist and president of Nature Nova Scotia. (CBC)

Alberta has been hardest hit in Canada with dozens of infected farms and the resulting deaths of more than a million birds this year.

A count by the federal government says 100 wild birds have tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza so far this year in Nova Scotia.

The province amended its Wildlife Act last spring to discourage people from feeding wild animals, but did not apply the act to backyard bird feeling. Still, a news release issued at the time said, "Nova Scotians should avoid feeding or handling wild birds and stop using bird feeders to prevent disease spread of avian influenza."

The federal Department of the Environment and Climate Change says on its website that using bird feeders is still considered safe. But they should be removed from areas near poultry or other domestic animals. And it advises people to regularly clean feeders and bird baths with a solution of 25 millilitres of household bleach to two litres of water.

Diane LeBlanc is president of the Nova Scotia Bird Society. (Sean Dempsey)

LeBlanc says putting up feeders is a personal choice that people will have to make.

"Typically what we ask people to do is not keep feeders up in the late spring and summer warm months because those pathogens are more likely to spread in the warmer weather and there's no need — there's lots of food in the environment," she said.

"When we get into the winter months, that's not as true ... there's not as much food in the environment.... So it's a complex situation."


With files from Maritime Noon