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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006, 05:28 GMT 06:28 UK
Garden birds threat 'short on science'
By Claire Heald
BBC News

Bird flu has the poultry industry on alert, and provokes health fears over a human strain of the virus. But what does it mean for the UK's garden birds?

Blue tits on a peanut feeder
Garden birds are getting about the business of Spring

The arrival of H5N1 in the wild bird population is a threat. Not least because infection could kill them and knock some of the UK's rare and endangered species off any perch of recovery.

But that is not the only danger faced, say bird groups. A "bad science" reaction from the public could also spell disaster on the bird table.

Wild and garden birds need their human benefactors more than ever, protection groups have warned. And the virus outbreak makes that even more important.

Bird population surveys have consistently registered an overall decline in the number of wild birds in the country.

Now, after a cold, long, harsh winter, the breeding season is under way in a so-far cold Spring.

There are fewer insects for resident species while migrating birds who return to breed will increase the pressure of numbers in the coming weeks.

Countless enquiries

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust have come together to stress it should be business as usual for feeding garden birds.

A Garden Birds Hygiene and Disease advice leaflet, available via its website, is the BTO's "keep feeding, wash your hands" response to countless enquiries from members of the public.

(A cull) could only make the situation worse by causing the birds to escape, and disperse. You put birds of conservation significance into direct peril
Andre Farrar

And the RSPB is keen to set out some of the facts, to stop people worrying about whether they should continue to put out food.

A bird flu outbreak in wild bird species could be "a real setback in conservation" for any endangered species, says RSPB spokesman Andre Farrar.

In 2005, India's bar-headed goose population suffered a 10% decline as hundreds of birds died in one bird flu outbreak.

Local cull calls

But he also wants to combat any inappropriate reaction to the threat from the public - such as calls for culls the organisation has seen on a low and localised level.

Culling a flock can be the appropriate response in poultry, he says, but the World Health Organisation, UN and governments agree it is not the same for wild birds.

Bluetit and young in a bird box
Many mouths to feed, more calories needed

"It cannot be effective because wild birds are everywhere, so it's never going to work," he says.

"It would take huge resources which could be better used elsewhere.

"And it could only make the situation worse by causing the birds to escape, and disperse. You then put birds of conservation significance into direct peril."

He sites examples overseas. In 2004, the Thai government planned a cull of Asian open-billed storks, implicated in carrying the virus. The proposal was abandoned when farmed poultry was discovered to be the link.

In Russia, he says, some local officials have called for culls in a bid to be seen to act.

Whereas in Scotland, he points out, a ban on hunting and shooting birds, because of the outbreak highlights the importance of leaving them alone.

"Birds bring a lot to our gardens and the places around us and we bring a lot to them," he says.

'Gut on wings'

The science behind the disease is also sold short, experts say.

That the disease is so far primarily a poultry and wildfowl disease - of ducks, geese and swans - which are more closely related - also has implications for wild birds.

Woman feeding swans
Sunflower seeds
Peanuts in mesh feeders
Fatty food, like suet
Mealworms, for robins

No human is known to have caught the H5N1 strain from a wild bird, both the BTO and RSPB point out, but from close contact with poultry.

Bird behaviour itself also plays a part in cross-infection. "The swift is basically a gut on wings, it trawls the skies for insects," Mr Farrar explains.

This migrant to Britain stays in the air as much as possible, if it didn't have to breed, it wouldn't land, he says. So the chance of and risks from contact with wildfowl on UK wetlands is reduced.

Sick birds travelling short distances to find water, such as in bird flu cases in Turkey this year, is often confused with migration - whole species of birds moving continents to breed.

Migration is then blamed for the spread, he says but factors such as the bird trade also play a part

Humans dealing with wildfowl and poultry are more likely to be the vessels he argues. In the French bird flu case, he points the finger at journalists who trooped in their wellies from the wetland home of an infected bird to a local farmer.

Migrators monitored

But what people can do for their garden birds is "maintain business as usual, they need our help, keep feeding them", says Martin Fowley of the BTO.

Its 17,000 garden watchers and string of professional bird monitors are keeping an eye on the population and it is advising Defra on the possible implications if and when bird flu spreads.

Residents: Blue tits, sparrows, blackbirds
Early migrants: Chiff chaff, sand martin, wheatear
Late migrants: Spotted flycatcher, swift

The government department is paying close attention to 10 species of migratory wildfowl deemed the most likely to bring H5N1 to the UK.

In the meantime the BTO advocates its common sense approach in the garden, or at the local duck pond "Birds, like any other animal, carry all sorts of diseases. You don't see people contracting those from them either."

"We've had a really cold early Spring. You should put out high-energy seeds, fat, that type of thing. Birds are now starting to breed and it's quite a costly business in terms of calories.

"When you feed birds, wash your hands with soap and water afterwards."

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