Sick and dying birds are still showing up at feeders all across the country. Mainly these are Pine Siskins ill with Salmonella, a bacterial infection.
We getting asked if it is safe to put all the feeders up. It actually depends on whether there are sick birds in your area or yard still.
For disease to stop spreading, the source of the infection must be removed or disinfected. Contamination happens as soon as a sick bird lands on a feeder, and that may be right after you just cleaned and disinfected it.
This makes it challenging to keep a feeder truly clean when you have sick birds coming to the feeder.
As we head into breeding season, if sick birds are making other sick, they very well could be infecting the babies as well.
Now that it is Spring, we recommend these protocols.
*If you have a sick bird - remove the feeders for a week or two. The sick one may stick around, if so try to catch him so you can get to rescue. Leave feeders down until the sick birds have dispersed.
* Continue feeding ONLY if you are able/willing to use the feeders that are least likely to spread disease - mesh hanging types, hopper with narrow feeding area, tube feeder. Remove any feeder that allows a bird to poop into the food!
*Continue feeding ONLY if you are able/willing to keep the feeders cleaned and disinfected, and able to do this frequently. Accumulation of fecal matter - poop - is how this disease is spread (and also saliva). Salmonella lasts a long time, so not bleaching is not an option. See below on how to do this right!
*If you saw or are seeing more than one or two sick birds, please assess your feeders for their safety in terms of disease spread. See below.
You play a huge role in protecting your birds and creating a safe backyard habitat.
Please explore the instructions below for specific details on how to help your birds.
What to Do Now:
Sick or Dead Birds:
How to Clean a Feeder:
Baths & Water Features
Salmonella Symptoms: What do I look for?
What do we do if we find a sick or dead bird?
Living, but sick birds:
Can humans or pets get Salmonella?
Yes, but it is not likely. The amounts in bird feces are tiny, and we are large. Cats that eat birds can and do get it. But if you have outside cats, you shouldn't be feeding birds.
Chickens carry their own particular subspecies of Salmonella. It too can be spread to wild birds. In fact, agricultural animal waste is one source of Salmonella infection for wild birds, particularly those associated with those animals (starlings and house sparrows).
Please use common sense when handling sick or dead birds, and when cleaning your feeders and baths. Gloves are mandatory.
If you would like citations for the research mentioned, email us at email@example.com
Why Pine Siskins & Finches?
Pine Siskins are particularly susceptible to Salmonella infection. These birds are experiencing an "irruption" year, which is when an unusually large number of a species appear in areas further outside of their range. Unfortunately, a shortage of conifer seeds has forced thousands of these birds to head south. Notably, people from across the country and even Florida are seeing these sweet little birds. (Audubon has a nice article on this irruption).
You might wonder why the Pine Siskins are ill, while the Chickadees and Nuthatches are seemingly fine. The finch family of birds seems to is more susceptible to both Salmonella and Conjunctivitis. This family includes Pine Siskin, House Finch, Evening Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, and the Goldfinches. Raptors and Owls that prey on sick birds can also contract the disease.
Notably, this disease spread from agricultural poultry farms, and more birds who congregate near agricultural animals carry the infection. A few birds will carry the bacteria in their guts, without visible external symptoms. These asymptomatic carriers will shed the bacteria in their feces; if this fecal matter contaminates foods, like at a feeder, then the disease will spread.
Some birds are able to overcome the disease and gain enough immunity to survive. This is usually the larger birds. Dr. Wesley Hochachka of Cornell Lab of Ornithology speculates that, "many other species are innately more able to fend off Salmonella infections," and develop immunity. However, given the death rate, he notes that it doesn't appear that this is happening for the Pine Siskin and Redpoll.
How & What Diseases are Spread?
Birds share disease wherever they congregate and avian scientists confirm that bird feeders are a location in which disease can be passed to other birds (Adelman et al. 2015; Dhondt et al. 2007; Galbraith et al. 2017; Hernandez et al. 2012, Lawson et al. 2018).
Many diseases are spread through fecal-oral transmission (meaning the birds accidentally eat poop). Any feeder in which a bird is able to sit in their food is a potential source for infection. Flat feeders and those with large seed catchers are primary culprits.
Salmonella is just one of several pathogens that can be spread at the bird buffet. Others are: conjunctivitis, avian pox, aspergillosis, trichomoniasis, and coccidia, along with internal parasites, mites, and feather lice. However, not ALL birds carry these pathogens (just like not all people carry the cold virus). In fact, studies show that only a few birds actually carry the Salmonella bacteria.
Salmonella is highly contagious because it survives in the environment (say a bird feeder) for a long time- "several weeks in dry environments and several months in wet environments" (FDA). In contrast, Conjunctivitis survives from "hours to a few days" according to Dr. Hochachka.
Humans can reduce disease spread by keeping the feeders clean.
Salmonella causes lesions and inflammation throughout the digestive track and esophagus. It can enter the bloodstream and affect the organs and the brain. Once in the brain it causes cognitive impairment, which is why sick birds act "tame" and you can get so close to them. Birds ultimately die from starvation, being unable to absorb the nutrients they need, or organ failure.
Our role in helping these birds is simple. We can create an environment in which the birds have a safe environment to feed.
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