Backyard Bird Safety

If we’re going to entice birds to our yards, it’s our obligation to try and make the environment we provide as safe as possible.  Obviously, there are risks to birds in nature that can’t easily be avoided.  But, as property owners, there ARE some things we can control.   Here are some ways you can provide a safer yard for your birds:

1.  Keep your cats indoors.

Cats are bird predatorsCats are a menace to wild birds.  Most cats will hunt birds near your feeders, baths, and nesting boxes.  It is almost impossible to make your bird houses and feeders “cat proof”.  Believe me, I’ve tried!  Cats are smart, sly, and can jump over 5 feet off the ground.  Keeping cats indoors is the best way to protect your birds and is more humane for the cats.  Ask any veterinarian and he/she will tell you that a cat’s life expectancy is significantly longer if they spend most of their time indoors.

2.  Clean bird feeders regularly.

Avian diseases such as conjunctivitis and salmonellosis are often spread in crowded feeding areas where there are many bird droppings.  The combination of moisture and heat can make the diseases spread more rapidly.  So, keeping feeding areas clean in the summer months is even more important.  Make sure to clean your bird feeders at least once a month if possible.  Scrape out any seed husk residue and droppings.  Then wash the feeders off with a stiff bristled brush and a solution of 10% bleach/90% water.  Then rinse the feeders off and let them dry before refilling with seed. Ground feeding areas should be swept off or raked up and the old seed husks thrown out.

3.  Keep birdbaths clean.

Birdbaths are another source of disease since the birds often immerse themselves in the water and leave their droppings in it.Bluebirds at a bath  Baths should be cleaned out with a hose and birdbath brush several times a week in the spring and summer.  There are special brushes made for birdbaths with rounded ends to get into the curved edges of the bowl.   There are some additives on the market that help keep birdbath water free of algae and other organic material.  You don’t need to use them unless you’re having a significant problem with algae growing on the bath.  Make sure to use the biosafe enzyme type and NEVER use harmful chemicals that could poison birds.   And just replacing the water regularly will minimize the chances of West Nile Virus being spread.

4.  Help prevent window strikes

Collisions with windows on homes and commercial buildings claim millions of wild bird lives each year.   Large plate glass windows are the worst.  But any window can cause a bird collision.  The problem is that the bird sees a reflection in the window of what’s behind it, so it appears to the bird to be a continuation of the yard – not a hard surface.  The best solution is to put items like reflective decals or hanging streamers on the outside of the window to break up the reflection.    You may have to put a number of decals on one window to be effective.  Another tip is to locate birdfeeders closer to the window rather than 20 feet or so away.  The reason for this is that if the bird becomes startled and flies into the window, it won’t be able to build up enough speed to harm itself if it runs into the window.  Another effective (but more difficult) strategy is to suspend a fine mesh screen in front of a problem window that will both eliminate the reflection problem AND cushion any bird/window collisions.

5.  Place predator guards on all bird house poles.

A homemade predator guard

Photo courtesy of North American Bluebird Society

Nesting birds are very vulnerable to climbing predators such as raccoons, snakes, and squirrels.  Any house placed on a pole should have some type of guard to prevent anything from climbing the pole.  Cylindrical metal “stovepipe” type baffles are the best.  They can be purchased from most birdfeeding specialty stores or online.  You can also make your own using the 24″ long, 6″ diameter sheetmetal stovepipe material at home centers.

6.  Keep brush and plants trimmed around birdbaths

Birds are very vulnerable when bathing and their feathers are wet.  It’s harder for them to get airborne if there’s a lot of water in their feathers.  Cats seem to know this and often lurk near birdbaths waiting for unwary birds to stop for a drink or bath.  By keeping a radius of at least 5-6 feet around the bath where a cat can’t hide, it will help protect the birds.

7.  Monitor your nesting boxes

Nest box monitoring is important

Photo courtesy of North American Bluebird Society

It’s very important when putting out nesting boxes in the yard to monitor them at least once a week.  This means checking the inside of the box to see if any bird is nesting there and whether there are any problems for your nesting birds.  For this reason, you should never put out a nesting box that can’t be opened (has a side panel or front that hinges open).  I strongly recommend to NOT allow non-native, invasive bird species like house sparrows and starlings to nest in your bird housing.  These birds are ultra-aggressive and often kill native birds like bluebirds and tree swallows in competing for nesting locations.  See our Nesting Box page for more information.

8.  Ensure your birdseed is fresh and not contaminated.

Keep an eye on your birdseed to make sure it does not get moldy or infested with insects or rodents – both in your storage container AND in the feeders themselves.  Birds can get sick by ingesting contaminated birdseed.  So, don’t buy more seed than you will use in 1-2 months time, especially in the warm weather months.  Seed that is outside of the shell like hulled sunflower or cracked corn are even more vulnerable to going bad.  And store seed in a cool dry place if possible – not in a hot garage.  Finally, if you see wet seed in a feeder or green starting to appear, immediately dump the seed out of the feeder into the trash and clean the feeder.

9.  Keep hummingbird nectar fresh and dye-free

Sugar water in a hummingbird feeder should be replaced every 3-5 days.   If you see it starting to get cloudy, it’s time to change it.   Use simple table sugar in your feeder and not honey.  If honey goes bad outside, it can form a fungus that attacks the hummingbirds beak and tongue and is fatal.   And to be completely safe, don’t use red-dyed hummingbird nectar.  They can’t digest the dyes and it isn’t necessary to attract the hummingbirds.  Finally, don’t put too much sugar in the solution.  More is NOT better.  Use one part sugar to 4 parts water.

10.  Eliminate harmful chemicals in your yard

Pesticides and Herbicides are bad for wild birds

Photo courtesy of North American Bluebird Society

Using toxic fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides will often kill wild birds.  They land in your grass, land on your plants, and eat insects in your yard.  So, it’s easy for them to come in contact with chemicals.  Try to use only organic products that are safe for the birds.




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Cornell Lab of Ornithology