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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Controlling avian pox

A recent comment from a reader reminded me of how important it is that those of us who choose to provide food and water for birds practice good sanitation and hygiene in the areas where the birds come to eat or drink. A bird feeder or birdbath can become a vector for transmitting disease unless we are scrupulous about  cleaning and disinfecting them on a regular basis. It is easy to become complacent in the absence of disease and to become careless about performing these essential tasks. I admit I am a habitual offender in this regard.

One of the more virulent diseases which can be transmitted in such places is avian pox. It is a slow developing disease that can be caused by one of several viruses.  There are two types of the disease: cutaneous, or "dry," pox which is the most common and diphtheritic ("wet") pox. Both forms can cause wart-like growths around the eyes and beak and any non-feathered parts of the skin. In the wet form, lesions also occur internally in the mouth, throat, trachea, and lungs, making it hard for the bird to breathe or swallow.

A bird with pox looks miserable and often becomes emaciated, but, in fact, birds often do recover. However, it can be a significant factor in mortality especially where birds are crowded together.

Some birds seem especially susceptible to pox. Among the songbirds that we usually see in our backyards, members of the finch family are the ones that we most often see with the symptoms of the disease. American Goldfinches and House Finches seem to be particularly prone it.

It is very distressing to see one of these beautiful birds suffering from this awful disease and the distress is compounded when we feel guilty because we have not been as diligent as we should be about keeping birdbaths and bird feeders clean. The preventative measures that we can take are fairly simple. It involves washing the baths and feeders regularly with a 10% bleach solution. That is enough to kill any viruses which may be hanging around there. If we do this on a regular schedule we can feel pretty confident that we have done our part to protect the birds with whom we share our yards.  

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go outside and disinfect my feeders and birdbaths before I let another day pass.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. It has been very distressing for me after seeing a sick bird. Luckily, I have not seen any other birds that are affected. My feeders are down and the bird bath is dry for right now. I miss seeing the birds, however I know it is best for their safety. That being said, yes, cleaning is VERY important. Especially if a large number of birds depend on water and food from your yard on a daily basis.

    1. I probably should have mentioned in the post also, Steph, that if you do observe a sick bird, it would be good practice to take your feeders and baths down for a while - maybe a week to ten days - before sterilizing and returning them to duty.