No birder likes to find a dead bird in their yard, but it is the nature of this popular hobby that some birds will succumb to predators, window strikes, and illnesses. Proper dead bird removal will minimize any negative effects on other backyard birds and keep infections or bacteria from spreading to pets or humans.
When You Find a Dead Bird
A dead bird might be found near a feeder, window, roosting area, or just in the middle of the yard, and the location may be a clue to the cause of death. A bird near a large window may have died from a window collision, for example. In other cases, the condition of the bird's body can indicate how it died, such as visible wounds from a predator or pox lesions that show advanced disease. Many times, however, birders will not know exactly what killed the bird. The temptation to examine the bird to determine why it died can be great, but it is important to dispose of the bird quickly and safely to avoid spreading illness or parasites to other creatures. A quick visual inspection can be made, but otherwise, the bird should be carefully disposed of right away.
- Protect Yourself: Wear gloves at all times when handling dead birds, since mites, insects, and bacteria could transfer a disease to humans. Disposable gloves are best and do not wear the same gloves you use when handling seed, cleaning feeders, or doing other household or garden chores. If you do not have gloves, use a plastic bag to protect your hands.
- Use the Proper Tools: Use a small shovel, rake or other tool to move the bird if possible, even while wearing gloves. Avoid touching the bird's body as much as possible with any part of your skin or gloves. A sheet of newspaper, piece of cardboard, or disposable rag can be additional barriers between the bird and any possible contamination.
- Wrap the Bird: Put the bird in a plastic bag that can be twisted shut or sealed. If a bag is not available, wrap the bird firmly in several layers of newspaper or rags that can be discarded with the bird's body.
- Keep the Body Hidden From Predators: Place the bag carefully in a covered trash container where it will be out of reach of pets, curious children, or scavengers. Be sure the container closes well and cannot be raided by predators seeking an easy meal.
- Clean Up Thoroughly: If moving the bird required contact with bodily fluids or open injuries, clean and sterilize any tools or gloves used in a solution of at least one part bleach to nine parts water or stronger. If there is a significant mess where the bird's body was, remove and discard the patch of soil, sod, or dirt, or pour the cleaning solution over the area. Grass may be killed by doing so, but so will any dangerous bacteria.
- Wash Your Hands: Wash your hands thoroughly with hot, soapy water after handling dead birds, even if gloves were worn and there was no direct contact with the bird. If water is not available, be liberal with hand sanitizer and wash your hands as soon as possible.
Do not leave dead birds exposed by putting them in a brush pile, compost heap, field, or ditch. Doing so will attract predators such as raccoons, rats, cats, or dogs which could become ill from the carcass. Predators can also become accustomed to an easy food source and may begin threatening other backyard birds. Similarly, do not bury dead birds as predators will still find them.
Reporting Dead Birds
In most cases, it is not necessary to report dead birds, particularly common backyard birds. There are several situations, however, that should be reported to wildlife resource officers or the local authorities.
- If the bird appears to have been shot or killed by human intervention. If the bird's body is in such condition as being tangled in balloon debris, showing obvious shooting wounds, or having choked on litter, the authorities may want to investigate possible wildlife crimes or the need for conservation measures.
- If several birds of the same species die in a short period of time or in the same area. Frequent bird deaths could indicate a larger disease outbreak or environmental contamination that may be a serious local threat and should be investigated.
- If the bird is a bird of prey or other large bird. These birds are typically top predators and can indicate greater environmental problems if they succumb to illness. They are also subject to greater instances of poaching and the criminals should be held responsible.
- If the bird is tagged or banded with tracking equipment. The equipment and bird's condition should be reported back to the appropriate institution so data can be retrieved and records updated. This can be invaluable to ornithologists, naturalists, or other wildlife researchers who use tracking data to study threats to birds, migration, seasonal ranges, and other information.
- If the bird is a species not usually found in your area. An unusual dead bird could indicate a poaching situation, vagrant species, or other unusual cases that may be studied further to augment ornithological records in the area. If local wildlife authorities are not interested in the specimen, a local museum or university may have use for it.
In these cases, contact local officials and provide them as much information as possible before you dispose of the bird. They may request that you keep the dead bird available for their collection and study, or they may ask you to take photos of the bird if possible. They will give you proper instructions for doing so safely and how to preserve what they will need to see.
Finding a dead bird is always a sad occurrence, and many birders, particularly young children, will want to hold a memorial for the bird. While this can be a touching gesture, doing so may reinforce unsound birding ideas. Wild birds are not pets, and their deaths are a natural part of the wildlife cycle. Explain to children–who will be understandably upset–that the healthiest, strongest birds survive but it is necessary to dispose of the bird properly in order to keep other birds healthy. Encourage children to look past one bird’s death to see the flock that continues to enjoy backyard feeders, bird baths, and other features of a bird-friendly yard. This allows them to understand that seeing dead birds is one part of the hobby, but it is a small part when compared to the joy and happiness that birding can bring.