A widespread salmonellosis outbreak in songbirds, particularly Pine Siskins and Goldfinches, has claimed the lives of countless birds in recent months. To slow the spread of the disease caused by salmonella bacteria, some state wildlife agencies and wildlife rehabilitation groups have encouraged people to dismantle their bird feeders and baths.
Birds in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest Canada were badly hit early this winter, according to Dan Grear, wildlife disease ecologist at the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center. More recently, outbreaks have been reported in the Carolinas, Georgia, West Virginia, Alabama, Texas, and several areas of California.
In February, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said it was “inundated with calls from residents finding sick or dead finches at birdhouses. Most of the reports came from locations on California’s Central Coast, San Francisco Bay Area, and Sierra Nevada communities. “
The agency’s statement identified salmonellosis as the cause and urged residents to remove feed and baths. “Salmonellosis is a regular occurrence at Pine Siskins for a few winters across its range,” said Krysta Rogers, avian specialist at DFW, California. “When large numbers of Pine Siskins congregate, the disease can spread quickly and cause high mortality. Most birds die within 24 hours of being infected. “
In early March, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources across the country issued a similar statement urging residents to quit the feed by early April when Pine Siskins head north.
Jennifer Gordon of the Carolina Waterfowl Rescue nonprofit wildlife rehab said her organization has treated dozens of sick siskins, as well as house and purple finches and American goldfinches. Most birds do not respond to treatment and are euthanized.
Dan Grear of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center says salmonellosis infections are common in forage birds in winter and early spring when the birds congregate to feed. “The number of cases during the winter months in songbirds, as well as in pigeons and pigeons, which are frequently fed in the garden bird, is likely to be significantly underreported,” making it impossible to say how widespread the problem is at present. “The wildlife health community ends up looking at the really big obvious events like the northwest this winter, but we don’t have the ability to track everyone else.”
What you should do
If you have a bird feeder or bird bath and live in any of the affected areas, take them off for at least a couple of weeks or until the local wildlife agencies say it’s okay to put them on hold.
In the meantime, clean your feed troughs and baths to kill any bacteria. Grear and other experts recommend cleaning with a 10% household bleach solution (9 parts water: 1 part bleach) and removing any spilled and possibly contaminated feed under the feeder. Clean feed troughs, bird baths, and any items contaminated with bird droppings in an outside area or in any other area of your home that is not used for food preparation or bathing.
Salmonellosis can also affect humans, pets, and farm animals, making it even more important to remove potentially contaminated seeds. Gordon says dogs got sick after finding and eating lethargic or dead birds.
If you find dead birds in your yard, Gordon says you shouldn’t touch them with your hands. Use gloves and either bury them or double-wrap them and throw them in the trash. Some state wildlife agencies have online forms for reporting dead birds or other wildlife.
If you live in an area where no cases have been reported this winter or spring, do not assume the disease is absent. It may be worth contacting a local wildlife authority or rehab doctor to ask if it is safe to keep feeds updated. And watch out for siskins and other finches. When the birds are sick, they often hunch over, stand on the ground, or have a discharge around their eyes.
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