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Sick birds

Female chaffinch

Small birds like chaffinches can be prone to contracting diseases

Image: Steve Round

Just like us and our pets, wild birds can suffer from disease. Garden bird feeding can attract unusually high numbers of birds to a confined area, which enables disease to spread easily.

From time to time, sick or dead birds may appear in a garden. Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done to help them, because once birds are visibly sick, it is rarely possible to treat them successfully. 

The best thing people can do is to prevent healthy birds from catching the infection, thereby helping to stop the spread of the disease outbreak. 

Exercise good hygiene around the feeders and water containers, and if necessary, withdraw food to encourage birds to disperse to feed over a wider area. It is better to do this than to expose them to a serious disease risk.

Personal protection

If you must handle sick or dead birds, it is important to exercise great care and hygiene, since there is a small but real risk of transmissible infections from sick birds. Some of the diseases of wild birds, most notably salmonella and E coli, can be passed onto people and pets.

Use protective gloves, and wash hands and forearms thoroughly as soon as you have finished with the bird. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth until you have been able to wash properly. Do not allow your pets to play with or eat birds, especially if they are sick or dead.

Can sick birds be treated?

No treatment can be administered to birds in the wild, because it is impossible to ensure adequate dose for the infected individuals and prevent healthy birds picking up the medicine. Some drugs that will cure one species can be lethal to others. 

Once a bird is so ill that it can easily be caught, it is usually beyond recovery, and the kindest thing may be to put it to sleep. If in doubt, contact a local vet or RSPCA inspector. 

While many vets are happy to treat wild birds without a charge, it is worth checking this before taking the bird to a vet. The RSPB is a conservation charity and is unable to treat sick birds.

The RSPB does not run bird hospitals or a rescue service, and so we cannot help an oiled bird. The RSPCA (England and Wales), SSPCA (Scotland) and USPCA (Northern Ireland) are the national charities that help and advise on wildlife welfare matters. They have the specialist expertise and equipment for cleaning oiled birds, and are in the best position to help an oiled bird, whatever the source and nature of the oil on its plumage