Friday, March 5, 2021

Social Distancing Is For The Birds, Too.


Sick pigeon

As much as we loathe social distancing, it can be a good thing. Disease transmission is diminished when we insist on a bit more personal space. This is true even for the common cold. The principle holds for people and for the birds.

Birds can carry diseases, too. According to Medical News Today, “birds and their droppings can carry over 60 diseases.” While bird diseases certainly pass from bird to bird, some can even be transmitted to humans. And it’s not just avian flu that we can worry about. Others include:

  • “Histoplasmosis is a respiratory disease that may be fatal. It results from a fungus growing in dried bird droppings.
  • Candidiasis is a yeast or fungus infection spread by pigeons. The disease affects the skin, the mouth, the respiratory system, the intestines and the urogenital tract, especially the vagina. It is a growing problem for women, causing itching, pain and discharge.
  • Cryptococcosis is caused by yeast found in the intestinal tract of pigeons and starlings. The illness often begins as a pulmonary disease and may later affect the central nervous system. Since attics, cupolas, ledges, schools, offices, warehouses, mills, barns, park buildings, signs, etc. are typical roosting and nesting sites, the fungus is apt to found in these areas.
  • St. Louis Encephalitis, an inflammation of the nervous system, usually causes drowsiness, headache and fever. It may even result in paralysis, coma or death. St. Louis encephalitis occurs in all age groups, but is especially fatal to persons over age 60. The disease is spread by mosquitoes which have fed on infected house sparrow, pigeons and house finches carrying the Group B virus responsible for St. Louis encephalitis.
  • Salmonellosis often occurs as "food poisoning" and can be traced to pigeons, starlings and sparrows. The disease bacteria are found in bird droppings; dust from droppings can be sucked through ventilators and air conditioners, contaminating food and cooking surfaces in restaurants, homes and food processing plants.
  • E.coli. Cattle carry E. coli 0157:H7. When birds peck on cow manure, the E. coli go right through the birds and the bird droppings can land on or in a food or water supply.

"Besides being direct carriers of disease, nuisance birds are frequently associated with over 50 kinds of ectoparasites, which can work their way throughout structures to infest and bite humans. About two-thirds of these pests may be detrimental to the general health and well-being of humans and domestic animals. The rest are considered nuisance or incidental pests.

A few examples of ectoparasites include:

  • “Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) may consume up to five times their own weight in blood drawn from hosts which include humans and some domestic animals. In any extreme condition, victims may become weak and anemic. Pigeons, starlings and house sparrows are known to carry bed bugs.
  • Chicken mites (Dermanyssus gallinae) are known carriers of encephalitis and may also cause fowl mite dermatitis and acariasis. While they subsist on blood drawn from a variety of birds, they may also attack humans. They have been found on pigeons, starlings and house sparrows.
  • Yellow mealworms (Tenebrio molitor), perhaps the most common beetle parasites of people in the United States, live in pigeon nests. It is found in grain or grain products, often winding up in breakfast cereals, and may cause intestinal canthariasis and hymenolespiasis.
  • West Nile Virus while West Nile is technically not transmitted to humans from birds, humans can get infected by the bite of a mosquito who has bitten an infected bird. The obvious lesson is that the fewer birds there are in any given area, the better. This translates into a smaller chance of an infected bird in that area, a smaller chance of a mosquito biting an infected bird and then biting a human.”

So, what can we do about it?

Medicines are out of the question. How can we treat wild birds? The populations are too great, and indiscriminate broadcasting can do more harm than good.

Sensible steps can be taken to slow disease transmission. Here are a few examples:

  • Keep an eye out for birds that seem lethargic, have fluffed feathers, or won’t fly away when approached. They might be ill. Report them to your regional Department of Natural Resources or local animal control office. Tufts Wildlife Clinic has more to say about this.
  • Don't handle sick birds.
  • Provide several feeders located in different areas so fewer birds will congregate together. 
  • Clean and disinfect bird feeders and bird baths regularly with a 5% solution of bleach.
  • Use separate brushes, scrubbers and other tools for cleaning them. Don’t use them for other purposes, and don’t bring them into the house.
  • Provide fresh food, throwing away any that seems rancid or moldy.
  • Feed only as much as the birds will consume in a couple of days.
  • Move your bird feeders occasionally so that droppings, seed hulls and discarded food doesn’t accumulate beneath them. Rake and disperse the debris.
  • Change water in bird baths every couple of days.
  • Wear a mask when cleaning bird feeders, baths, and cleaning under them. I know you’re tired of being told to wear a mask, but you don’t want to breath airborne disease spores, if any are present.

Hopefully, a bit of care will help to mitigate the spread of disease among us and our feathered friends.

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