Bird Feeders Are Allowed Again — Though The Illness Killing Songbirds Is Still A Mystery

Sep 13, 2021

A Black-capped chickadee at a bird feeder, 2020.
Credit (Wikimedia Commons/Rhododendrites)

Hoosiers in all counties can put their bird feeders back out again. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources made that announcement on Friday — even though the federal government still hasn’t identified the mysterious illness that’s killing songbirds in multiple states.

In June, the DNR asked Indiana residents to take down their bird feeders to stop the spread of the disease. Last month, the DNR said residents in all but 16 counties could start feeding birds again because agency wasn’t receiving many reports of the disease outside of those counties.

State ornithologist Allisyn Gillet said of the few reports the DNR has received recently, most of them have been sick adult house finches and goldfinches — which suggests they might have had house finch conjunctivitis.

“This is the time of the year when a lot of house finches and some American goldfinches and other finch species end up getting this disease. So we felt more confident that it was likely the cause of those symptoms in those birds were due to house finch eye disease instead of the songbird disease,” she said.

Gillet said the numbers of birds with the mystery illness has decreased enough that the DNR felt it was safe for the public to put out bird feeders again.

If you see a sick or dead bird in your yard, the agency still recommends that you don’t feed the birds. Birds with the unknown disease have symptoms like crusty eyes, eye discharge, and sometimes neurological issues — resulting in tremors or odd behavior.

If you do put your feeders back up, the DNR encourages residents to clean them frequently.

"Clean seed and suet feeders at least once every two weeks by scrubbing feeders with soap and water, followed by a short soak in a 10 percent bleach solution," the DNR said in a press release. "Cleaning feeders helps keep birds healthy and helps prevent the spread of disease. Feeders should be thoroughly rinsed and dried before being filled with birdseed. Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned at least once a week with a 10 percent bleach solution and rinsed thoroughly." 

Gillet also suggested cleaning up seed that falls underneath bird feeders — because some species of birds will congregate there. Birds don't need to be fed by people to survive. 

This story has been updated.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.