Please don't stop looking after your garden birds during the warmer months. You will not be putting yourself at risk from picking up the deadly H5NI strain of the bird 'flu virus by continuing to watch and feed your feathered visitors - that's the message from the nation's leading birdlife research body.
The British Trust for Ornithology stresses that garden birds do not pose a health threat to humans, although it is sound common sense to follow simple hygiene rules after feeding birds if you don't want them to spread disease among themselves. Despite recent media panic over the current bird 'flu spread (and the finding of a dead migratory Whooper swan in Scotland that was found to have been suffering from H5N1), the fact remains that disease transmission between birds and humans has, to date, centred on situations in which domestic farmed chickens and waterbirds and their handlers have lived in very close contact. Some cases have followed the eating of diseased birds' carcases.
The BTO categorically state that "garden birds are not a threat" and have produced a free leaflet giving people the information they need to allay their fears. Knowing the facts, they believe, will enable the public to continue to enjoy feeding and watching birds in their garden. Support feeding is now considered important throughout the year, incidentally, not just during the winter when food resources are scarce. Many once-common species are now declining. Nesting and the rearing of young use a great deal of a bird's energy and use of pesticides, drought, modern farming practices and hard-surface "makeover" gardens add to the problems, so that parent birds may find it difficult to gather the high-protein diet of invertebrates, like caterpillars, that they need to feed themselves and their fast-growing brood. Starving in the nest is now thought to be one of the factors behind the recent decline in House sparrow numbers.
Birds do carry diseases; salmonella being one of them. But this is chiefly a risk for other birds and a dirty feeding station can be a killer. (Humans are most likely to suffer from the effects of salmonella poisoning through eating infected poultry and poultry products.) "The single most important action we can take, to protect both the birds that feed in our gardens and ourselves, is to follow the basic hygiene rules of keeping feeding stations clean and washing hands with soap and water after contact with bird feeders and food," says Martin Fowlie of the BTO's Garden BirdWatch team.
Chair, Wildlife Committee