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Could your backyard feeder be killing birds?

Outbreak traced to salmonella bacteria


Last updated 2/12/2021 at 5:17pm

Mandy Weger

Pine siskins latch onto bird feeders.

One of the documented, positive outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the uptick of people taking up bird watching and adding bird feeders to their properties.

But a recent outbreak of salmonellosis is leading to the death of wild birds throughout the northern part of the country, including in Snohomish and Island counties.

Salmonellosis is caused by the salmonella bacteria, and is primarily spread through fecal contamination of food and water sources, but can also be passed directly from bird-to-bird. Outbreaks are typically seen in winter and spring, a time of year when many birds are gathering at bird feeders, said Executive Director Brian Zinke of the Pilchuck Audubon Society.

"When an infected bird frequents a bird feeder, it sheds the bacteria through its feces, likely contaminating the surfaces of the feeder and/or the food," he said. "When this happens, the feeder becomes a vector for disease, spreading it to other birds who visit the feeder."

That also applies to the ground below the feeder. Substantial amounts of seed can fall to the ground from feeders, where feces can accumulate, and ground-foraging birds – such as dark-eyed juncos, spotted towhees, and sparrows – can be exposed.

In Snohomish County, the species typically affected are pine siskins and other finches, but all species of bird are susceptible to it, Zinke said. http://www.bit.ly/2MPEIrc.

"This year is notable because of the historic irruption of pine siskins in Edmonds and nearby communities," he said. "Many places are seeing record numbers of pine siskins, which provide for great viewing opportunities, but is also putting more pressure on our feeders.

What you can do

The best thing you can do to help mitigate the disease is to remove your feeders for a few weeks, Zinke said.

"The original guidance by the Department of Fish & Wildlife was to remove feeders until the end of February, but as cases are still being reported, we recommend the public continue to hold off feeding a little while longer.

"As disappointing as it is for us to take our feeders down, we have to do what is best for the birds."

It's also very important to clean your feeders regularly – not just during a disease outbreak. General cleaning guidance is to wash feeders with warm, soapy water; disinfect the feeder with a 10% bleach solution (one-part bleach, nine-parts water), rinse, and let dry completely before using again; and wash all nearby surfaces and rake the ground below the feeder.

And don't forget about birdbaths, Zink said.

They need to be cleaned regularly, too. For more information on cleaning feeders and birdbaths, you can visit the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) website at http://www.paws.org.

One of the best ways you can help birds year-round is to make your yard or space a better bird habitat.

"While many of us enjoy feeding birds and seeing the diversity of species that come to our feeders, what birds really need to thrive is the full suite of habitat – food, water, shelter, and nesting areas," Zink said.

"By making your yard more bird-friendly, you not only help them fight off disease by not congregating at feeders, but you're providing long-term benefits to the bird community, and you may even see an increase in bird species using your yard."

Pilchuck Audubon Society has a free Zoom program Friday, Feb. 12, regarding salmonella in Pine Siskins. Register at http://www.bit.ly/3p6KWQP.

For more information: http://www.pilchuckaudubon.org/, http://www.bit.ly/3aIFtuo.


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