The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has lifted its caution against feeding birds, just in time for those who wonder whether they should give their feathered friends a heaping helping of food this winter.
Earlier this year, officials had asked people to stop backyard feedings after receiving dozens of reports of sick or dead birds at feeders. Subsequent tests showed salmonellosis, a usually fatal bird disease caused by salmonella bacteria.
The disease is spread through droppings by birds that gather in large numbers at feeders.
Which is why it's necessary to regularly clean feeders in chlorine bleach solutions — one part bleach to 10 parts water — before thoroughly drying them.
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"It's very important to keep the feeders clean so we can avoid diseases … just like you clean your own dishes," says Valeri Wade, owner of Wild Bird Chalet in Bellingham and a member of the North Cascades Audubon Society.
Other considerations when it comes to feeding birds:
• "You need the appropriate feeder for the birds that you want to feed," Wade says. "Smaller birds need smaller perching areas. Bigger birds need a bigger perching area."
• Different birds eat different things, so do your homework to get the right food.
"You want fresh food and you want the food that your birds will eat," Wade explains. "The most popular food for birds is sunflower seeds, whether in the shell or out of the shell."
Another good source is suet, which is traditionally kidney fat with some seeds in it. Suet is important because it provides the most energy per bite of food. But not all birds eat it; woodpeckers do, for example, because they’re bug eaters.
Look for high-quality suet, which is not full of seed.
• Where the feeder is located is important. Most birds like to be near shelter or something that they can fly to quickly if a predator comes around, Wade says.
She encourages people to provide habitat, such as trees and nest boxes, as well as water.
"It's not hard for us to do … and the rewards are great," Wade says, adding it's especially important to do so as more and more bird habitats disappear.
• There are differences of opinions about when birds should be fed.
Joe Meche, president of North Cascades Audubon Society, says feed them when food is scarce.
"We don't need to feed birds as much in the summer time as we do in the winter time," Meche says, adding there’s plenty of food in the warm months.
State wildlife officials say food can be put out beginning mid-October and continuing through February and March.
Wade likes feeding them year-round because she says watching birds is relaxing, they need the extra help as their habitats disappear, and it allows people to see the next generation as birds feel safer.
"It's so special to watch the babies," she says. "It's such a joy to sit in your house and to watch all the behaviors and antics. It’s very rewarding."