Aussie habit of feeding birds could be spreading 'dreadful disease'

·Environment Editor
·3-min read

Stop feeding birds to help stop the spread of illness is the simple request wildlife advocates want Australians to hear.

Central to Wildlife Victoria's message is raising awareness about the transmission of psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD), which causes immunological suppression in native birds.

Their call has ignited furious debate with an online post, resulting in bird lovers arguing over whether to feed or not to feed.

Bird lovers have been asked to stop feeding birds (left) to help stop the spread of PBFD (right). Source: Getty / Wildlife Victoria
Bird lovers have been asked to stop feeding birds (left) to help stop the spread of PBFD (right). Source: Getty / Wildlife Victoria

"It's a dreadful disease, people need to understand feeding birds bread is a slow death for the birds," one person responded.

"I reckon feed them, we have already taken away too much of their habitat," someone else responded.

"Sharing a feeder, sharing nectar, seeds on a tree, same," another person said.

Have you seen birds infected with PBFD?

While most people probably haven’t heard of PBFD, they’ve most likely seen the effect it has on cockatoos and lorikeets.

Old looking cockatoos with scraggly feathers and long beaks are most often juveniles, which are more susceptible to the incurable disease.

Infected young lorikeets are also commonly afflicted with short feathers, leaving them unable to fly, and making them overly friendly towards humans as they try to survive.

Wildlife Victoria is asking bird lovers to consider planting feeder trees instead of feeding birds.

“Beak and feather is a horrible, highly contagious disease, that can impact whole flocks of birds,” it warned.

“It is for this reason we do not encourage bird feeding stations and the feeding of wild bird as it becomes a communal spot for them to spread the disease through contact.”

Disease expert encourages feeding of birds to help monitor disease

Despite Wildlife Victoria’s concerns, Charles Sturt University avian disease expert Professor Shane Raidal isn’t convinced feeding birds is significant in aiding the spread of PBFD.

Flocks of cockatoos are known to harbour PBFD. Source: Getty (File)
Flocks of cockatoos are known to harbour PBFD. Source: Getty (File)

“Feeding stations may slightly increase the risk of transmission, but the reality is that it would have an absolute negligible effect on the ecology in the wild,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“It's actually better for people to feed - that's my opinion - because then we have more of an appreciation of what's happening out there.”

How PBFD spreads to falcons from lorikeets

PBFD is thought to have originated in Australia, and is found in a wide range of species including kookaburras, rainbow bee eaters, raptors, powerful owls, peregrine falcons, wedge-tailed eagles and white breasted sea eagles.

A sick kookaburra which came into care in NSW later tested positive to PBFD. Source: Yahoo
A sick kookaburra which came into care in NSW later tested positive to PBFD. Source: Yahoo

While researchers only confirmed it had infected kookaburras a decade ago, Professor Raidal believes it's likely not a new development.

"It's probably more likely that we're noticing it, because we're now looking," he said.

Carnivorous birds are thought to contract the disease from eating prey species like lorikeets. It’s also believed to be maintained in the environment in hollows and individual birds.

Populations which have been studied include large flocks of cockatoos and galahs, where approximately 20 per cent of birds are affected each year, of which five per cent succumb to the infection.

“Especially the big flock for cockatoos… they maintain it in their flocks, so that the rest of the birds actually develop a very strong immunity,” he said.

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