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peanut plant

Peanuts still remain one of the most popular food choices for many garden birds, particularly in times when highly calorific food is needed. Peanuts offer a really good balance of oil and protein, both of which are necessary for energy and good health.

Just how calorific peanuts are, can be evidenced by the fact that they very rarely appear in any human dieting regimens and if they do – you are only allowed a small handful at a time! More...

moulting robin

What is moulting?

Moulting is the name given to the process that takes place when birds shed their old feathers to make space for new plumage.

How long a bird will take to moult, and the length of time their moult takes is dependent on the species, age and time of year. 

Some birds moult all of their feathers in one go over the course of a few weeks, while others shed their old feathers gradually over the course of an entire year! More...

Up, up and away...or found on the ground?

I am often contacted by people who have found a young garden bird (or birds) sitting on the ground and looking as if they have been abandoned by their parents. This can understandably cause concern.

The first thing to say is that this is very common, and in over 95% of cases, there is no need to be worried and you should not intervene. For example, this gorgeous young robin is clearly doing very well for himself and feathering up.

Baby robin

Most youngsters you'll find are feathered fledglings, doing as nature intended and leaving the nest to check out the big wide world before taking to the sky.

Most of our garden birds will fledge once they are fully feathered (at about 2 weeks of age) but before they are actually able to fly. Instead, they tend to hop out and spend a day or two on the ground finishing off the development of their flight feathers, which would otherwise take up too much space and be too uncomfortable in the confines of an outgrown nest!

This young robin may look like he needs help, but actually he is just a bit behind the one pictured above. As you can see, he still needs to grow his flight feathers (and a tail!) but his eye is bright.

Young baby robin

This sparrow is also just young and needs his parents.

Baby sparrow

Of course, the exception to this rule are the swifts, swallows and house martins, who fledge on the wing and should not ever be found on the ground under normal healthy circumstances.

If garden birds are fully feathered and hopping about, it is extremely unlikely they are fending for themselves. Adult birds will be somewhere - either collecting food, hiding from you or keeping a watchful eye from a distance. Therefore, it usually best just to leave well alone.

In particular, if you find a young owl, do not touch it or move it. Very often parents will attack (and kill) youngsters that have been handled by humans.

So the take-home message is that moving an apparently healthy fledgling from its normal habitat WILL reduce its chances of long-term survival, so please resist the temptation to move it. Every year, the RSPCA receives tens of thousands of fledglings that have been picked up by caring members of the public and taken to them. Our garden bird populations are declining, so these tens of thousands are really needed to sustain the numbers!

 

When should I intervene?

If you feel that the bird's life is in peril - for instance, maybe it has strayed onto a busy road - then obviously the thing to do is lift it and move it to a safe place a short distance from where you found it. As long as you don't go too far away, the parents will recover their baby and (and with the exception of owls) should not then reject the baby just because it has been handled.

If you have cats in the garden, I would encourage you to keep them indoors for a couple of days until your fledglings have taken off.

If the bird has obviously been injured (e.g. a broken wing, damaged leg, laceration or cat maul) or if it appears sick, then it is unlikely to survive without some form of intervention. In this case, put gloves on, handle the bird with great care, place it in a dark cardboard box with ventilated lid, and seek professional advice.

If the bird is quite shocked, you should keep it in a warm place (like an airing cupboard). Alternatively, wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and place it below the box or along one side of it - NOT inside the box with the bird - so the bird can get away from the heat and you won't dry-roast it.

Sick firecrest

Although this is not a fledgling, you can tell by this firecrest's eye that it is unwell and needs veterinary treatment.

If the chick you find is bald or very poorly feathered (let's face it - a pretty ugly sight!) it may be possible to gently lift it and replace it in the nest. Obviously, you will need to identify which tree/bush and nest it fell from, and you need to be careful not to fall off the ladder whilst trying to do your heroic duty!

Please don't attempt to feed a sick baby bird with anything. If you cannot put the bird back in its nest, pop it into a small cardboard box with a ventilated roof. Keep it warm and quiet and take it to your nearest independent rescue centre or the RSPCA. The website helpwildlife.co.uk has lots of good advice and an easy locator for your nearest wildlife rescue centre.

Of course, small birds like this need regular and constant feeding, so if you are not able to get to the centre straight away, call them and ask their advice about feeding and how best to look after the baby until they take over. It will be much less stressful for you, and you'll be more likely to have a successful outcome.

If you have a question for our resident vet Lesley, you can ask it here!

As winter bird feeding ensues, usually around this time of year, ( mid to late November ) when average daily temperatures start to fall and the seeds, masts and fruits in the hedgerows are pretty much eaten up, garden birds will start to return to your feeders. The seed- eaters, like tits, finches, robins, dunnocks, blackbirds etc will visit feeders and will fill up on dry seed. However it is a bit like having toast in the morning without an accompanying cup of tea if you don't also offer them clean drinking water! Most garden birds do need to drink at least twice a day. They lose water through respiration ( breathing) and droppings. Really lucky people have a free flowing stream or river running through their gardens and will notice that birds will find themselves easy-access points where they can drink ( and have a bath ) in relative safety. For us less fortunate, putting out a bird bath (or an upturned metal dustbin lid!) and keeping the supply of water clean, will be gratefully received.

Here are a few water 'top tips' to make winter healthy for your birds and easy for you;

Experiment with the location of your bird bath. Birds need to feel safe when they bathe ( they don't fly well with wet feathers!). If it isn't being used - try moving it to a different spot in the garden.

Try to leave at least 2 meters distance between the bird bath and some cover, like a hedge or tree. This will give them some cover if they feel threatened, and the distance will give them security against predators like sparrowhawks and cats.

Adding stones or pebbles is a really good way to encourage them to use your bird bath. It helps simulate a natural shallow pool. The birds can sip and keep an eye out for trouble. Ideally, the bird bath should have sloping sides and a rough texture ( makes it less slippy) and the water should be about 1-4 inches deep.

Keep on top of your cleaning routine. Chose and use a bird bath which is easy for you to man-handle and made of materials which are easy to scrub clean. I am always going on about how dirty water can be a major factor in the transmission of diseases (such as trichomoniasis and salmonella )- so PLEASE KEEP 'EM CLEAN.



When the weather freezes, the ice in bird baths will be unuseable for them, and if they don't find an alternatives source of water, small garden birds do risk becoming dehydrated. Maintaining hydration is a key factor in staying warm - so not only are they thirsty, they become cold as well. They then need to eat more to keep their body temperature up which compounds the problem.... so please make sure that you break the ice regularly.

We haven't had a very cold winter for a few years now, but we did find floating a couple of ping pong balls a cheap and effective icebreaker. Of course - you can always pour some warm water from a pan/kettle into the bird bath, and re-siting it to a sunny spot in the garden may also help.
Please don't be tempted to use any kind of anti-freeze - these products are mostly toxic to birds.

You can buy a bespoke bird bath in a variety of different sizes, heights and materials, but it is also quite nice to create your own, and I would love to hear from you what kinds of items you have used successfully as bird baths and any top tips you might have for keeping them active and healthy during the winter months.

 

chaffinches

Papilloma viruses in chaffinches give rise to warty growths - which have colloquially been called "tassel foot", and I think you would agree, looking at the photographs which have been kindly sent to me by David White, it is a very good descriptor.

Papilloma viruses in humans cause skin warts, which are very common but usually resolve spontaneously. In fact, I remember as a child, my Dad 'buying my warts from me' for a 5p (or maybe it was a sixpence?) - and magically they used to vanish! I think he just got his timing about right.

However, much more seriously, a number of 'high risk' strains have been linked to cancers such as cervical cancer. However, papillomaviruses are very specific to their host species - so the good news is that infected birds pose no threat to us humans - nor to any other wildlife in the garden. The bad news is - that the virus can be easily transmitted from one bird to another - which is why you often see 'mini outbreaks' - where two or three birds are affected at any one time - or there is a lingering presence in the garden for a few weeks/months.

The virus is spread by direct contact and also through indirect contact via feeder perches, tree branches etc. It goes without saying, therefore, that if you do see an infected bird in the garden, make extra sure that you clean your feeders and feeding stations thoroughly - more advice on this is given here.

Of course please also wear gloves when disinfecting and don't clean feeders in areas where you prepare food!

Since feeding stations, bird tables and bird baths are where birds hang out, it may be prudent to put these areas out of commission for a couple of weeks. I know it feels like a tough thing to do, but dispersing the birds for a period will reduce the risk of spread, and hopefully will resolve the issue more quickly...... no one likes to see poorly birds. Having used the word 'poorly' it is also true that in many cases they are bright and seem to be totally unaffected- just sporting thick 'Nory Batty' legs! Very often they develop immunity and recover. Sometimes they become very lame and lose a toe and occasionally chaffinches will become very debilitated and die - however this is not the norm.

I hope you have found this summary helpful. Please do feel free to drop me a line if you would like some advice and I am always grateful for any good photographs that you might take - it helps me build my photographic library (because I am a good vet but a hopeless photographer!). 

Birds are at their most vulnerable state during the winter. The weather is harsh and food is not available easily. During these difficult times, the first step in helping these birds survive is to make sure that they have access to plenty of food and drinking water. But this proves to be difficult as the harsh weathers creates problems with the food supply. The harsh weather and moisture spoils the food in the feeders. There may be snow or ice that accumulates on these feeders during winters making the food inaccessible. A few essential steps need to be undertaken in order to make sure that the feeders withstand the weather conditions and are of good use to the birds during the harsh times.

The first and the foremost is cleaning these bird feeders and making them ready for the winter. This includes disinfecting of the feeders.
The feeders should be thoroughly checked for damages and any feeders in need of repairs should be repaired before the winter.
Most of the birds rely on the feeders for their supply of food when there is a scarcity. The bird feeders should be full and the stocks need to be replenished on a regular basis in order to make sure that there is a continuous supply.


It also makes sense to make sure that the feeders are secured properly.
Since the weather is moist, lumps of bird food is formed in the feeders. So it is advisable to clean these out before refilling. Seed should be kept dry as much as possible.
There are feeders available that are meant for the winter months. These usually have better capacities.
Feeders can also be covered in order to prevent snow and ice from accumulating on them. For the same purpose, these can also be shifted to covered areas in the garden.
These are a few things that need to be considered to ensure that the birds have a steady supply of food during the trying times.

Avian Pox
Avian Pox is a relatively new (and emerging) disease in the UK, which seems to be increasingly identified in garden birds. The disease is caused by an AviPox virus - a thick walled virus. The virus causes two types of disease – a dry ‘cutaneous’ (skin) form which stimulates excessive skin growth and nodular warty lesions. This type of pox infection is most commonly seen in our garden birds. The other ‘wet’ form of the disease, is more commonly seen in domestic chickens and turkeys, where the virus infects the mucous membranes of the digestive and respiratory tracts. This electron micrograph of a pox virus, shows how thick walled the virus is. This thick wall enables pox viruses to be extremely resistant to environmental factors (such as disinfectants), and the virus survives and multiplies really well in dry conditions. This is why Pox lesions are seen more commonly in the summer months than the winter.


It would seem that currently Great Tits are more predisposed to Avian Pox infection than other UK garden birds however lesions have been recognised in Dunnocks, Wood Pigeons, Blue Tits, and I have also seen Blackbirds with Pox lesions.

In most other species, the virus will cause mild lesions, usually on the featherless areas - the legs and around the eyes and beak. Often seen as bald/scaly patches, or pinky/grey plaques, these birds often mount an immune response to the virus and survive the infection.


However in Great Tits, extensive wart-like nodules can develop, which can then impede their ability to fly, feed, breathe or even to see. If these birds can continue to feed, it is possible for them to recover, and they are left with only minor scars. In severe cases, the birds may not survive.
The virus seems to invade the bird via abraded skin and mucous membranes- either from infected perches and feeding stations or possibly through biting flies, which again, are more common in the summer months.
Because it is a relatively resistant virus, (due to its protective wall) it can survive on contaminated perches and feeding stations (particularly in dry summer months) for a considerable time – infecting a number of birds in one garden.


Avian Pox virus does not seem to be infectious to humans, however if you have to handle infected birds, do make sure you wear gloves and follow the hygiene measures which I have written about.
Whilst the larger, more prominent Pox lesions are distinct, it may be worth remembering that smaller, less obvious lesions may be other things such as injury scars or tick infestations, as can be seen in this accompanying photo of a Reed Warbler infected with a tick. The tick will fill with blood and drop off spontaneously.


Because this disease seems to be spreading within UK garden birds, there are a number of groups studying the incidence of cases and the spread of the disease. If you do find Pox infected birds in your garden, please call RSPB Wildlife Enquiries on 01767 693690 and help them to track what is happening in the UK.
And one last request from me........ if you do see infected birds (with Pox virus or any other disease/malaise), I would be really grateful if you could take photographs and send them to me. I will use them to put together a library for my vet pages, and for each photo I use, I will send a £5 gift voucher to spend with us.

With sincere thanks to Liz Cutting for the use of her photographs. www.lizcuttingphotos.com

Trichomoniasis

Like Avian Pox, Trichomoniasis is a relatively new and emerging disease affecting British Garden Birds.

However unlike Avian Pox virus infection, garden birds which become infected with the Protozoal parasite (called Trichomonas gallinae ) will not usually survive. The parasite survives in moist conditions, needs water to survive and will be killed by dessication.

A photomicrograph of two Trichomonas protozoa parasites can be seen here.


Trichomoniasis, (or ‘Canker’ as the disease is also known), was a significant problem for pigeons and doves in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. A school boyfriend of mine (many years ago now!), had racing pigeons that suffered an outbreak of Canker which had a dramatic effect on their health. The pigeons suffered with nasty necrotic (cheesy) ingluvitis- which is an inflammation of the crop and oesophagus.

Fortunately, effective in-water antibiotics were quickly developed in response to this new disease, and nowadays it is less commonly diagnosed. However it is still seen in Game birds and Poultry.

For some unknown reason the parasite then jumped host group to have a dramatic effect on the UK wild finch population. Although Greenfinches are most frequently affected by T. gallinae infection in garden environments (and Chaffinches somewhat less so), the reasons for this are not clear.


The Greenfinch is one of the species most frequently affected by other infectious diseases that are commonly diagnosed in garden birds, such as Salmonellosis and Colibacillosis (Lawson and Cunningham, unpublished data). It may be that the gregarious and seed-eating habits of finches, sharing food and water at feeding stations, with high contact rates, are likely to facilitate pathogen spread. Trichomoniasis, however, is confirmed much less frequently in other sociable and flocking garden birds ,so feeding behaviour is unlikely to be the sole driver of Greenfinch susceptibility.

The disease was first recorded in a British finch in April 2005. Small numbers of dead finches were reported throughout 2005, but then the disease exploded in 2006 and 2007 as infection spread and the British public reported their findings;


fluffed up, lethargic finches (mainly Green finches and Chaffinches, but also a few Collared doves and wood pigeon also succumbed to the parasite, and at that time, the only other species in which the condition was diagnosed were House Sparrows (9 cases), Yellowhammers (4 cases),
Dunnocks ( 3 cases) and Great Tits ( 2 cases )
Prior to this epidemic of Trichomoniasis, low levels of finch mortality due to Salmonellosis were recorded annually, with the peak occurring during the months of December and January, however this new disease significantly increased mortality and in some areas 35% of Greenfinches and 21% Chaffinches died. When you consider that there are approx. 4million Greenfinches in gardens in the UK, the total number of deaths was huge.

The inability to swallow causes excessive saliva to build up and birds have wet facial and chest plumage. Many also have difficulty breathing and are emaciated.


Laboratory examination of these dead birds usually shows a necrotic mucosal ulceration of the crop and oesophagus area. The photograph on the right hand side is unpleasant to look at but it does highlight just how significant the pathology is when these birds become infected. No wonder they cannot swallow- poor things.

Although we have quantified the occurrence of Trichomonas gallinae in dead birds, the overall prevalence ( i.e how many birds in the UK are infected) remains unknown. Prospective studies to screen multiple species of live birds for the parasite would help address this knowledge gap- but this is unlikely ever to be possible.

The Trichomonas gallinae parasite survives and thrives in still moist conditions (such as bird baths, wet bird tables) and will be destroyed by dessication ( drying out).


It lives in the upper digestive tract and therefore the most likely way that it is spread between birds is via saliva. This can be direct spread during courtship and when infected adults feed their young, and indirectly, via saliva-contaminated water and food.

If you see diseased finches or find a dead bird in the garden, my advice would be to stop feeding for at least 14 days and preferably 21 days. Bird baths should be emptied, scrubbed and left dry. Similarly with bird feeders, tables etc. People worry about stopping feeding, but if dirty bird baths and feeders are allowing the parasite to continually infect healthy garden birds, then the disease will continue to circulate.

Please see my section on health and hygiene for more specific control measures.

Salmonellosis

Salmonella species are rod-shaped bacteria which are zoonotic. That means that they can spread from animals or birds to infect humans. There are approximately 2,000 strains of Salmonella spp in existence, and humans, domestic and wild animals, and domestic and wild birds can all become infected with certain strains of Salmonella spp. Not all strains can infect all species, but there are Salmonella strains which can be transferred from one species to another and cause disease in both. It is all quite complicated!


The most commonly isolated stains of Salmonella in wild birds in the UK (identified as a result of the submission of dead birds to UK Veterinary laboratories) are those of Salmonella Typhimurium, strains DT40, DT56 and DT160. A large scale study of garden bird mortality which was conducted in England and Wales between 1993 and 2003 (before Trichononiasis was recognised), identified Salmonella Typhimurium as the main pathogen isolated, and the majority of deaths due to Salmonella occurred during the winter months.
Flocking birds such as Greenfinches, Chaffinches and House Sparrows seemed to be most commonly affected, and interestingly, male Greenfinches were much more frequently diagnosed with Salmonellosis than female ones!


The Salmonella organisms invade the digestive tract of wild birds.

They can cause ulceration of the crop and oesophagus and severe inflammation of the intestines – leading to diarrhoea. The bacteria are present in large numbers in infected droppings and these are the source of contamination for uninfected birds. Infected birds will look puffed up and often will just sit on the ground or on feeding perches – failing to respond to danger. Interestingly, birds will often continue to eat, despite being severely ill. Obviously the risk of transmission is greatest where large numbers of birds gather at communal roosts or feeding sites, and poor hygiene at feeding stations can facilitate an outbreak.


While most infected birds die, some do not show any symptoms and can act as carriers. Salmonella bacteria are fairly hardy and can survive in the environment for some time.

This path photo shows a Siskin which died of Salmonella typhimurium D56. It was one of 30 birds which died in a single garden over a 30 day period. You can see really nasty and extensive necrotic ulcers in the crop. Other birds had severe haemorrhagic enteritis. Because droppings are the source of infection, the best way therefore to prevent an outbreak of Salmonella is to prevent faecal contamination of the water and food being offered.


Because there is a real zoonotic risk with Salmonella typhimurium it is very important to take care to exercise good personal hygiene when cleaning feeders and water containers and when handling sick or dead birds it is imperative that you wear disposable gloves, and ensure thorough washing of hands and arms. Prevention is always better than cure and following 'Best Practice' feeding guidelines will help you prevent disease occurrence in your garden.


The guidelines are the same for any organism under consideration;
Ensure good feeding hygiene - clean and disinfect feeders and clear up uneaten food and droppings
Provide clean drinking water and clean bird baths on a daily basis
Move feeding stations and split your daily offering into a number of separate feeding areas to reduce contamination build up
Offer high quality food and don’t over-supply food- feed to demand.

If you have photographs of diseased garden birds, which you have taken yourself, and you would like to send me, please email me at vet-query@reallywildbirdfood.co.uk. I will use them to put together a library for my vet pages, and for each photo I use, I will send a £5 gift voucher to spend with us.

Many thanks!

Lesley