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Science and Environment / WBAA

Indiana is seeing an avian flu outbreak. What does that mean for bird feeders?

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Experts advise weekly feeder cleanings to stop the spread of avian flu (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

Indiana is among over 30 states experiencing an outbreak of avian bird flu — but what does that mean for residential bird feeders?

As of April 18, the state reported outbreaks among nine commercial flocks — with roughly 200,000 birds needing to be killed. Nationwide the number of commercial birds killed because of the outbreak is over 28-million. Experts say the virus is most likely coming from wild birds traveling through the state as part of their migration patterns.

Dr. Greg Fraley, a poultry scientist with Purdue University, said one thing people can do to help prevent the spread of avian flu is put their feeders away for the year.

“Now I’m a birder and I know that’s a ridiculous thing to suggest,” he said. “I’m not getting rid of my feeder. But there are some small things we can do to limit or help protect the wild birds.”

Fraley said weekly cleanings of feeders can reduce the spread of avian flu — as well as using bird feeders that don’t let birds get their whole bodies onto a feeder. Avian flu is primarily spread through feces.

“You want a little perch so essentially the pooping end of the bird is hanging off the feeder and they aren’t all walking around in each other's feces,” he said. “That’s not a perfect fix but every little bit helps.”

But, Fraley said, water baths should absolutely not be used this year.

According to Fraley, wild birds tend to be infected without being symptomatic. The virus has largely been reported in waterfowl — ducks and geese — but there have been positive cases among eagles and hawks reported.

A spokesperson with the Indiana State Board of Animal Health said the agency is not making recommendations about bird feeders at this time. But, they noted if people see dead or sick birds around their feeders the feeder should be thoroughly sanitized before getting rehung.

Other experts, however, have begun to recommend taking bird feeders down. The University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center released guidance earlier this week urging people to pause the use of both bird baths and feeders, noting it’s unclear what role songbirds play in the spread of the virus.

Fraley said it’s also not clear why avian bird flu is spiking this year.

“It may have a lot to do with climate change and having warmer, wetter environments down in their southern grounds that the birds hang out in over the winter,” he said. “Plus with diminishing forest and diminishing habitats we have warmer, hotter, moister climates with much smaller space for them to interact with. It creates a perfect little scenario for these things to happen.”

Ultimately, Fraley said routine cleaning of feeders can go a long way in helping reduce the spread of the virus.