A bird gets food from a bird feeder.
A tufted titmouse snags a seed from a bird feeder in Dedham. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

There’s good news for people who enjoy attracting wild birds to their yards throughout the year.

As dangerous as the H5N1 strain of avian flu is for backyard poultry, there is no reason for most Mainers to stop feeding songbirds.

There has been confusion among bird lovers when it comes to maintaining their bird feeders in the wake of outbreaks of the highly contagious strain of avian flu popping up around the state. Here in Maine, unless a feeder is near a backyard flock, experts advise there is no reason to stop feeding wild songbirds.

More than 700 domestic birds have been killed in the state so far — either directly by the avian flu or by being humanely euthanized to prevent its spread — and the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry ranks the risk level for the disease in Maine as high.

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Among the ways to prevent the spread of the disease is maintaining strict hygiene practices anywhere near domestic flocks. Early on in the outbreaks, some areas outside of Maine recommended stopping the feeding of wild birds altogether to prevent them from gathering in groups and potentially infecting each other.

“Different states saying different things has made it confusing,” Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist with  Maine Audubon. “An alert did come out from a midwest state that really got the ball rolling on taking down feeders.”

That alert was from an area that is home to an important raptor rescue and rehabilitation reserve, according to Hitchcox.

“It made sense for that area,” he said. “Raptors do eat things like ducks which are the true carriers of the disease.”

Ducks, especially mallard ducks, are often opportunists at bird feeders where they can gobble up any spilled feed that ends up on the ground.

But unless you keep a backyard poultry flock, there’s no reason to take down a bird feeder in Maine.

“We are following the science,” he said. “Avian flu is found in and transmitted mostly by ducks and there are really no known cases of it showing up in our feeder birds.”

The main concern with songbirds is the very rare chance an individual might infect a member of a backyard flock, according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. The key is keeping the song birds away from the poultry, rather than keeping them away from each other.

Backyard poultry keepers should make sure their domestic birds have food and water that is inaccessible to wild birds. Backyard birds should be confined to areas away from their wild counterparts.

“We recognize that if anyone has domestic fowl, you should keep them indoors and stop feeding wild birds,” Hitchcox said. “That is the best way to keep domestic birds safe.”

No wild bird in Maine is going to starve if someone takes down their feeders, Hitchcox said. In fact, having a bird feeder is more about bringing birds in close for viewing than helping the birds.

“Even in the worst winter, birds only use feeders to supplement 20 percent of what they get in the wild,“ he said. “Bird seed is really not their preferred food, especially during nesting season when they need high protein food like worms or caterpillars.”

For those feeding birds, Hitchox said it’s important to keep the feeders clean as there have been reports of avian conjunctivitis in Maine.

“That is a direct result of people not cleaning their feeders,” he said. “It is transmitted among wild birds and keeping feeders and the ground under them clean is a way to prevent it.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.