Are We Killing with Kindness? – Finches Friend

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Finches Friend Dick woods hero

Imagine if, one week, a quarter of a million greenfinches suddenly fell out of the sky – stone dead. That would be front page news. Yet Every year from 2006 to 2016 well over a quarter of a million greenfinches “fell out of the sky”, killed by a parasite, Trichomonosis.

The overall population crashed by 66% and as a result the greenfinch is now on the red list and facing extinction. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) said this “represents the largest scale infectious disease impact on a European wild bird on record” Terrible. But here's the worst thing – we – you and I – anyone who feeds garden birds were entirely responsible for this devastation.

The parasite that causes this fatal disease is passed on in the saliva of infected birds as they gag and drool struggling to eat at our feeders. If the feeders are not cleaned very regularly (I’m talking once a week, or once every two weeks at most) then the entire local population can become infected. 

This is not a peculiarly British problem. All around the world it’s become clear a whole array of diseases can be passed on at dirty feeders. All the more tragic because as human activity had destroyed the bird’s natural habitat, they have increasingly come to rely on us providing supplementary food. 

Chaffinch

I recently watched a webinar from the USA where the issue of disease at bird feeders was discussed. I learnt a lot. In one study in Illinois, it was discovered that a shocking 8.3% of birds visiting feeders were infected with disease. Despite this around 40% of people never clean their feeders despite the growing realisation that the feeders are the main problem. 

The webinar also opened my eyes to the problem of Salmonella. This is a bacterium, again passed on at bird feeders, this time from the faeces of infected birds. So, on dirty feeders the Trichomonosis parasite is being passed on in infected saliva whilst salmonella is being passed on the other end in faeces. Dirty feeders are a death trap for garden birds.

The solution, from studies around the world, (Holland, France, Germany, USA, Australia and Canada amongst others) all focus on two critical points - the advice from Canada summarises both:

  • Clean your bird feeders and baths regularly. A weak solution of domestic bleach (10% sodium hypochlorite) should be used to disinfect feeders and baths. Feeders should be rinsed well and dried before re-use. 
  • Only use bird feeders that prevent the seed from getting wet. Bird seed that is exposed to rain and becomes wet is a more suitable environment for the potential survival of the parasite. Keeping food dry is a key issue, research has shown that the parasite can live for up to 48 hours in wet food, but dies very fast in the dry.

They also say…

  • Do not use table feeders. Sick birds sitting directly on bird seed are more likely to contaminate it with Trichomonas.

Many basic feeders are both very difficult and time consuming to clean, and others literally allow the birds to stand in the food and infect it with saliva and faeces.

Martin hughes games with finches friend

Dick and Andrew Woods at Finches Friend nature are developing products to specifically combat disease transmission in our gardens using some brilliant bits of innovative design. My hope is that if these new designs become commonplace in our gardens we may slow, or even halt the spread of the diseases currently decimating our finch populations. Dick explains some of his ideas below...  

Martin Hughes-Games – Naturalist & Broadcaster


The Finches Friend Story

blue tit on finches friend feeder

It’s six years since the Greenfinches in my garden died from what was, at the time, a mystery disease to me.  It’s now a year since Finches Friend wild bird feeders went on sale. Back in the mid 2010s I learned about Trichomonosis and the harm it was inflicting on our Greenfinches, and I was shocked that it was transmitted by a parasite on our garden bird feeders. 

Back then, I was surprised by both the lack of information out there, as well as the scarcity of easy-to-clean feeders.  I am sorry to say that little has changed and today, at Finches Friend, we plough a lone furrow. The situation for our finches is much worse now:  Greenfinches are endangered, and chaffinches are in dramatic decline as they succumb to the same parasite.

As an aged design engineer, I try to apply common sense to the problems I perceive. My personal view is that urbanisation and intensive agriculture have driven the birds into our human world.  We now feed the birds intensively, and it is common for multiple species to make regular visits, year on year, to the same spot to eat and drink. This is something that doesn’t happen naturally, and our wild birds have not evolved to cope with this change.  The sad consequence is an increase in disease and mortality. 

Dunnock

Most feeders are simple tubes, with holes in the sides, a top and a bottom.  They are made down to a price; they often allow rain to get in and are hard to clean. When I couldn’t buy feeders that were prioritising the safety, rather than profit, I committed to build my own.  I designed it so the birds would feed under a canopy to keep the food dry, and I created a feed tray which is easily removed, cleaned and replaced without wasting food. We have feeders that can be cleaned in minutes, supporting the target of weekly cleaning set out by the British Trust for Ornithology. 

My son Andrew and I brought our “Cleaner Feeders” to life in April last year. They are not the cheapest feeders on the market, but we believe they offer excellent value:  our largest feeder has four feeding chambers and 23 components, and we are proud to say that it is moulded and assembled in Britain.  Sustainability is important to us, and our feeders are built to last for years, using components and packaging that are fully recyclable.  We are conscious of price, however, and have prioritised the development of a more affordable single chamber feeder, which will be on the website next month.   


The Future

male bullfinch

There are dozens of diseases transmitted between wild birds, some are harmless to humans, some are highly contagious. Viruses, bacteria and parasites all present a danger and good food hygiene is critical.  For example, we must ensure birds cannot stand in, or defecate in, the food they are given to eat. With this in mind, we have just filed for patent on our Window Cleaner Feeder, the first window feeder in the world, which cuts the link between window feeding and the birds standing and defecating in their food. Cleaner Peanut feeders, Cleaner Water and Cleaner bird tables are all designed and in our product pipeline. We plan to launch in the US later this year.  

Dick woods finches friend

We will know in the next few weeks if we have defeated our friend the squirrel! Sometimes design is easy, sometimes the simplest of things are so hard to overcome. It is not hard to make a squirrel guard, but it is hard to make it in the Great Britain and make it affordable.  After countless prototypes we are just starting trials - I am highly optimistic about the outcome.  

greater spotted woodpecker

Finally, I’d like to end with a plea for people power.  If you love nature, please make your voices heard with the charities and publications concerned with avian welfare.  Talk to your families and friends to help raise awareness about the disaster that is befalling our wild birds.  Most people, like me in 2016, are not aware that the key to disease prevention is to clean your feeders weekly, regardless of who has supplied them.  For further information on good feeder hygiene, please click here.  

Dick Woods – Finches Friend Founder


Help your garden bird visitors with Finches Friend

You can help prevent the spread of illness and disease in your garden with Finches Friend Cleaner Feeders. Easy-to-clean and manufactured in the UK, Finches Friend bird feeders help you create a safe space for wild birds and give you more time to enjoy watching them.

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