U expert: Stop backyard bird feeding while avian flu spreads

Indigo Bunting at feeder
An Indigo bunting grabs a snack in Eagan. The head of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center is urging people to hold off backyard bird feeding this spring to help stem the spread of avian flu.
Emily Raleigh

Minnesotans should hold off on feeding their backyard birds for awhile and should also take steps to sanitize their feeders to protect songbirds as avian flu circulates across the state, the head of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center tells MPR News.

Backyard bird feeding is a ritual of life for many in Minnesota, but suspending the practice for a bit could aid birds more susceptible to the virus strain that's hitting poultry flocks, said Victoria Hall, the raptor center’s executive director.

Backyard birds “should be able to find other food sources at this time of year, and it's important to remember that this is not going to last forever,” Hall said.

The center’s been taking in one to three birds of various species a day stricken with avian flu, with many severely ill and suffering from seizures, she noted, adding that researchers have never seen this much transmission during an avian flu outbreak.

“Hopefully by June-ish, when the weather starts warming up and birds start dispersing a bit, we'll see these numbers go way down,” she said.

Hall also urged Minnesotans to stop fillings birdbaths so birds will not be encouraged to gather together — and to clean feeders.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

"It's always a great idea to routinely clean these feeders because there's things besides avian influenza that birds can give to each other — different bacteria and parasites,” Hall said, adding that “hopefully in a couple months it'll be safe to put them right back out and we can keep enjoying them."

If people find ill or dead birds in the community right now, Hall said they should contact the raptor center, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources “because these birds if they have avian influenza, you don't want to accidentally get virus on you and spread it to your backyard chickens at home, to others.”

On April 12 and 13, Raptor Center staff were called in to help a nest of great horned owls in Nokomis Park in Minneapolis who were reported to be in distress. There they discovered three young birds who later tested positive for the flu. 

According to a statement from the center, one bird suddenly died and the other two had to be euthanized. Officials with the center say two adult owls were found dead in the same area as the nest. And they expect those birds will test positive for the disease as well.

The number of domestic turkeys and chickens affected by avian influenza in Minnesota is nearing 2 million. The state Board of Animal Health announced two more positive cases Friday, bringing the total number of infected flocks to 40.

The latest two cases are at commercial turkey operations in Meeker and Blue Earth counties. Avian influenza is transmitted by wild waterfowl, and is deadly to domestic poultry. Infected flocks are euthanized to prevent the virus from spreading.