For the Birds Radio Program: Salmonella Outbreak, 2009
Why do so many siskins and redpolls die in spring thaws, and what can we do to protect the birds in our own backyard? “Bird feeding is something we do to feel good about our own generosity and benevolence as well as to give us good opportunities to see birds. But to be truly benevolent, our feeders have to be good for birds in reality, not just our minds. “
In the past week, on the listservs people in Wisconsin and Minnesota have been talking about how many dozens or hundreds of redpolls are still at their feeders, and here in New York about how many Pine Siskins are still there. Meanwhile, I’ve been getting dozens of emails and phone calls about how many dead birds people are finding. During the spring thaw, when all the germs that have collected over the winter in spent seeds and bird droppings, are warming up and multiplying, many feeders have bouts of salmonella, but this year it’s the worst outbreak I can remember. Some people who keep reasonably good care of their feeding stations have found dozens of dead birds.
Salmonella is caused by a bacterium of the same name that is naturally found in soil, so the disease first appears in the birds that pick up seeds off the ground, and spreads quickly among finches because they not only eat on the ground but in dense flocks. Sick birds may appear thin, or unusually plump because they’re all fluffed up. They are often lethargic and easy to approach. Some infected birds may show no outward symptoms but are carriers of the disease and can spread the infection to other birds.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether the bird got infected with salmonella in the first place in your yard, or whether it arrived after being infected elsewhere. But as soon as you see one bird, others can get sick in your yard from the droppings of the infected bird. So if you see even one sick or dead bird at your feeder this time of year, it’s best to bring in all your feeders. If the ground is still too frozen or you just don’t have time to rake it, cover it with a tarp until you can. Wash your feeders thoroughly and rinse with a strong bleach solution, but don’t refill them and invite birds back to your yard for two weeks. If you can’t bear to not feed your chickadees, you can set up a small acrylic feeder in your window with sunflower seeds, but don’t put much seed in at a time and only empty the shells into the trash, not onto the ground.
The strains of salmonella that hurt birds are also dangerous for us and our pets. When you find a dead bird, pick it up with a plastic bag, double bag it, and put it in the trash before your dog can pick it up. Salmonella is, of course, one of the reasons why people should keep their cats indoors for the cat’s benefit as well as for birds.
Bird feeding is something we do to feel good about our own generosity and benevolence as well as to give us good opportunities to see birds. But to be truly benevolent, our feeders have to be good for birds in reality, not just our minds. Putting out cheap seed mixes increases the chances for diseases to flourish because most birds pick out the sunflower and white millet and leave the filler seeds to decay. And providing enough food to entice huge flocks without putting in the work to rake up the hulls is inviting disaster. With the bad economy, fewer people are feeding birds right now, and that means that those of us who still do have to be even more responsible, because birds are concentrating at the remaining feeders. Feeding birds is supposed to be a joyful pastime, for us and for the birds. By keeping our feeding stations clean and closing down shop when birds do get sick, we can keep them that way.