Are birds dirty to touch?

Quick Answer

Birds can potentially carry diseases and parasites that can be transmitted to humans, so there is some risk involved in handling wild birds without protective gear. However, the actual risk varies greatly depending on the specific bird species, its habitat, condition and your own susceptibility. With proper precautions, the risks can be minimized. Captive bred pet birds kept indoors are generally safe to handle.

Are Wild Birds Dirty?

Wild birds can harbor a variety of infectious agents that have the potential to cause illness in humans. Some of the main health hazards associated with touching wild birds without protection include:

  • Bacterial infections – Birds may carry Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, Pasteurella and other bacteria. These can cause gastrointestinal illness in humans.
  • Fungal infections – Birds can transmit fungal spores that may cause respiratory illness. Histoplasmosis is particularly associated with starling and blackbird droppings.
  • Parasitic infections – Birds can carry parasites like giardia, cryptosporidium, roundworms, tapeworms and bird mites. These can be transmitted through contact with bird droppings and cause parasitic infections.
  • Viral infections – Some bird viruses like avian influenza are potentially transmittable to humans. Bird flu is very rare but can be deadly.

The natural oils that birds secrete and deposit on their feathers can also harbor microbes. Their talons and beaks may have feces-borne organisms if they are not washed regularly. Nesting materials often contain feathers, droppings and food debris that can cultivate germs.

Risk Factors

While wild birds may carry infectious agents, the actual risk of getting sick from touching a bird depends on several factors:

  • Bird species – Some birds like pigeons, starlings and blackbirds tend to harbor more microbes than songbirds for example. Birds of prey are less likely to transmit infections.
  • Bird habitat – Birds that live near livestock and poultry may pick up more diseases. Waterfowl carry more parasites and waterborne germs.
  • Bird condition – Sick, injured, juvenile and compromised birds tend to shed more microbes.
  • Your susceptibility – People with weakened immunity, chronic illness, very young and elderly are more prone to bird-related infections.
  • Transmission route – Ingesting material from birds poses a higher risk than just touching intact skin.

Healthy adult songbirds living in natural habitats away from poultry facilities generally pose low risks. Still, it’s wise to take precautions.

Precautions When Handling Wild Birds

You can greatly reduce the risks of illness when handling wild birds by following some basic precautions:

  • Avoid contact with obviously sick, dead or injured birds.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching birds.
  • Wear disposable rubber or nitrile gloves when handling birds.
  • Wear a disposable gown or coveralls while handling birds.
  • Wear a particulate mask over nose and mouth.
  • Protect eyes with goggles, glasses or a face shield.
  • Clean and disinfect any equipment and surfaces that came in contact with birds.
  • Isolate clothing worn during bird handling and wash separately in hot water and detergent.
  • Shower immediately after extensive handling of wild birds.
  • Seek medical care if you develop flu-like symptoms after handling birds.

Following these precautions is especially prudent for people at higher risk of infection such as children, pregnant women, elderly and immunocompromised individuals.

For most healthy adults, casual contact like briefly handling a songbird poses minimal risks. But do wash your hands after touching wild birds, their feathers or droppings as a precaution. Avoid touching your face before washing up.

Are Pet Birds Dirty?

Health risks associated with pet birds are much lower than wild birds. There are some key differences:

  • Pet birds see avian veterinarians and get proper medical care.
  • Owners closely monitor pet birds for signs of illness.
  • Parasites are well controlled in captive birds.
  • Pet birds are not exposed to germs from migratory flies and mosquitoes.
  • Indoor birds have no contact with droppings of wild flocks.
  • Owners maintain clean cages, food and water containers.
  • Pet birds are not exposed to germs from farm animals and poultry.

With proper care, pet birds pose very low risks to their owners. Simple hygiene precautions further minimize risks:

  • Wash hands after cleaning cages.
  • Avoid getting bitten or scratched.
  • Keep birds away from kitchen and bathrooms.
  • Don’t kiss pet birds.
  • Clean cages, perches, toys and food bowls regularly.

Children under 5 years, pregnant women, elderly and those with compromised immunity should take extra care around pet birds. But for most people, the health risks are very small.

Parrot Fever (Psittacosis)

One concern with pet birds is psittacosis or parrot fever, a bacterial disease caused by Chlamydia psittaci. Signs in birds include discharge from eyes and nostrils, breathing problems, lethargy and diarrhea.

If psittacosis infects humans, it typically causes a respiratory illness resembling pneumonia with fever, chills, headache and body ache. It is treated with antibiotics like doxycycline.

Parrots, parakeets, macaws, cockatoos and other hookbills are most commonly associated with psittacosis. Turkey, pigeons, poultry and wild birds may also transmit the bacteria.

To prevent parrot fever:

  • Buy birds from reputable breeders.
  • Quarantine new birds for 45-60 days.
  • Isolate birds showing signs of illness.
  • Get pet birds vet checked annually.
  • Disinfect cages, toys, perches regularly.
  • Avoid cleaning cages where dust is generated.
  • Use mask, gloves and wash hands when cleaning cages.

With proper pet bird care and hygiene, risk of psittacosis is extremely low. There are fewer than 100 cases per year in the U.S.

Bird Mites

Bird mites are external parasites that live on the skin of birds but may bite humans when their usual hosts die or abandon nests. The mites cannot reproduce without bird hosts and only survive 1-2 days without a blood meal.

Bird mites may cause irritation and itchy welts on human skin. They do not spread infections but may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Species of mites associated with birds include:

  • Northern fowl mite – Mostly affects chickens but may bite humans.
  • Tropical fowl mite – Associated with parrots, budgies, canaries.
  • Scaly leg mite – Affects poultry but rarely bites humans.
  • Itch or depluming mite – Parasitizes parrots, finches and other pet birds.
  • Red mite – Most common bird mite to bite humans, prefers starlings, sparrows, swallows.

To help prevent bird mite exposure:

  • Remove old bird nests near your home.
  • Seal cracks, crevices and openings on roof and exterior walls.
  • Install door sweeps, window screens and seal landscaping rocks.
  • Use insecticides labeled for bird mite control if needed.
  • Wash clothes in hot water if exposed to nests or bird mites.

With vigilance, bird mite infestations can be prevented. But they pose no serious health risks beyond temporary skin irritation.

West Nile Virus

West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne disease associated with wild birds like crows, jays, finches, sparrows and ravens. The virus causes no illness in birds, but infected mosquitoes can spread it to humans through their bites.

Only about 1 in 5 people infected with West Nile virus develop symptoms like fever, headache, rash, body aches, diarrhea, vomiting and fatigue. About 1 in 150 may develop a serious neuro-invasive form leading to encephalitis and meningitis.

Since West Nile spreads through mosquito vectors, the risk is not directly associated with touching birds. But you can help prevent exposure by:

  • Using mosquito repellent when outdoors.
  • Staying indoors at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are active.
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants when outside.
  • Getting rid of standing water mosquito breeding sites.
  • Reporting dead birds to health authorities for West Nile testing.

The risk of acquiring West Nile from direct contact with birds is extremely low. Mosquito bites pose the real threat.

Avian Influenza

Avian influenza refers to infection with bird flu viruses. These viruses occur naturally in wild waterfowl and shore birds. They rarely cause illness in their natural hosts, but can be deadly to domestic poultry.

On very rare occasions, certain bird flu strains like H5N1 and H7N9 have infected humans. Symptoms may include fever, cough, shortness of breath and other flu-like symptoms.

While human cases of bird flu are incredibly rare, close contact with infected birds does pose some risks:

  • Exposure to respiratory secretions or feces of sick birds.
  • Touching contaminated surfaces then your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Consuming undercooked poultry or eggs.
  • Direct bird-to-human transmission through bite or scratch.

To prevent bird flu exposure:

  • Avoid direct contact with wild waterfowl.
  • Do not touch dead or dying poultry.
  • Cook poultry and eggs thoroughly to 165°F (74°C).
  • Wash hands frequently when around birds.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces in contact with birds.

For most people not working directly with infected poultry, risk of bird flu is extremely low. But it’s wise to take precautions around sick or dead birds found in nature.

Summary of Bird-Related Health Risks

Disease Source Transmission Symptoms
Salmonella All birds Ingesting droppings Diarrhea, fever, cramps
Campylobacter Poultry Ingesting droppings Diarrhea, cramps, fever
Psittacosis Parrots, parakeets Inhaling dust Pneumonia, fever, chills
Histoplasmosis Starlings, blackbirds Inhaling droppings Fever, cough, fatigue
West Nile Virus Crows, jays Mosquito bites Fever, headache, rash
Avian Influenza Waterfowl, shorebirds Direct contact Fever, cough, pneumonia

This summarizes some of the main infectious disease risks associated with birds. However, the chances of transmission from casual contact with wild birds is generally very low, especially with basic hygiene and common sense precautions.


While wild birds can potentially transmit a variety of diseases to humans, the actual risk from handling birds is quite low in most cases. Healthy songbirds found away from poultry facilities generally pose minimal hazards.

There is somewhat higher risk associated with birds of prey, waterfowl, pigeons and birds concentrated near livestock operations. Still, basic precautions like avoiding contact with sick birds, hand washing and protective gear greatly reduce chances of illness.

Pet birds kept indoors pose very little risks with proper care and hygiene. Children, pregnant women, elderly and those with weakened immunity do need to take extra precautions around birds. But for most healthy adults and older children, moderate contact with wild birds and feathers entails minimal health hazards.

So while contact with all animals requires some caution, birds maintained in sanitary conditions and not showing signs of illness are perfectly safe to gently handle. With basic hygiene and common sense, bird watching, casual handling of wild songbirds and caring for indoor pet birds can be enjoyed with very minimal risks of disease transmission.

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