PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is announcing today that it has lifted a precautionary notice asking Rhode Islanders to take down bird feeders and bird baths.
Due to a mysterious illness affecting songbirds throughout the eastern United States, DEM issued an advisory in July asking the public to stop using bird feeders and bird baths as a precaution and to report observations of dead birds to the agency.
Although ornithologists and wildlife biologists across 15 states have not been able to definitively identify the cause of this illness, diseases such as avian influenza, West Nile virus, salmonella, chlamydia, Newcastle disease virus, herpesviruses, poxviruses, and Trichomonas parasites have not been detected.
Also, no human health or domestic animal issues have been detected. As of mid-August, reports of dead birds have decreased in Rhode Island, allowing DEM to lift the recommendation to stop feeding wild birds. As always, the agency reminds the public not to feed birds or any wildlife in areas where bears are active.
"DEM's Division of Fish and Wildlife thanks the public for their concern and taking the precautions necessary to protect our native birds," said DEM biologist John Herbert. "As Rhode Islanders begin to put their bird feeders and baths back in place, now is the perfect opportunity to start a regular cleaning routine to lessen the chance of diseases spreading in places where birds congregate. Small actions can add up in a big way to keep birds safe."
Although no confirmed cases of this illness were detected in Rhode Island, DEM reminds residents to remain vigilant if feeding wild birds. All wild bird feeders and bird baths should be regularly cleaned (once every 10 days) with a 10% bleach solution. Other bird illnesses can be spread throughout the year, especially during the winter, so this should be a regular practice to keep wild bird communities healthy. If you notice any sign of sick birds, please take down your feeders immediately.
It is important to note that summer is an abundant time of year for birds and other wildlife with plenty of natural fruit, seeds, and insects. The seed from bird feeders can draw the unwanted attention of squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, mice, rats, coyotes, and even black bears. Wild animals that become habituated to human-associated foods like bird seed can become a nuisance, spread disease, and cause problems.
RIDEM appreciates the conscientiousness of Rhode Island residents for following the previous recommendations and reporting sick and dying birds. DEM, however, still is asking for public reporting of sick/dying birds that are potentially affected with this mortality event.
If the public observes any additional sick or dead birds with crusty eyes or neurological impairment, DEM asks that they please photograph them, noting the date/time/location for recordkeeping. It is helpful to get a full body photo as well as a photo of the bird's face. Please submit observations using the Bird Mortality Reporting Form (https://ridem.wufoo.com/forms/bird-mortality-reporting-form/).
There are many ways to naturally support wild birds in your backyard and neighborhood that offer more bigger benefits than offering food at a bird feeder. Here are some tips to keep your backyard birds happy and healthy:
1. Provide natural food: When feeding wild birds in Rhode Island, the best option is always to plant native perennial plants. Native plants produce berries and seeds that wild birds are accustomed to eating. Native plants also support robust insect populations. Insects are the most critical food source for baby birds during the breeding season. Not sure which plants are native to Rhode Island or where to buy them for your garden? Check out the URI Master Gardeners Native Plant Guide, which will help you narrow down plant species appropriate for your garden conditions and find a local plant nursery that carries native plants (https://web.uri.edu/rinativeplants/).
2. Provide shelter: Many birds nest in natural tree cavities. If you don't have trees in your yard, consider putting up some nesting boxes to welcome breeding birds to the area. For instructions on how to build nesting boxes for various species, check out the templates available on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birdhouses website (https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/).
3. Keep cats indoors: Free-ranging cats, both domestic and feral, are responsible for killing hundreds of millions of songbirds in the United States every year. Keeping pet cats indoors or supervised outdoors will help protect birds from unnecessary predation from cats.
4. Do not feed birds bread or other food scraps: Bread and other processed snacks like crackers, cereal, muffins, etc., are notoriously bad for birds. These foods can cause severe compaction of the digestive system, growth deformities, and in some cases death.
5. Minimize your own use of pesticides and fertilizers: Targeting a single "pest" species to eradicate often has unintended and undesirable consequences. Pesticides reduce food availability for birds by reducing insect diversity. Integrated pest management is one alternative that relies on the science of pests, their life cycles, and their broader relationship to the environment to yield more ecologically sensitive results than pesticide use. Organic methods like composting and leaf mulching also can give positive results without any risk or cost.
For more information about DEM divisions and programs, visit www.dem.ri.gov. Follow the Division of Fish and Wildlife on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rifishwildlife or on Instagram (@ri.fishandwildlife) for timely updates.