Washington wildlife officials are urging people to take down their bird feeders, even at this coldest time of year. That’s because of an outbreak of salmonella that is infecting songbirds, especially finches and particularly pine siskins.
The pear-sized brown and gray birds are fun to watch, especially when they congregate in great numbers to enjoy birdseed or to frolic in the water of a birdbath. But that congregate setting is a problem, says Sam Montgomery with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The agency has been getting record numbers of calls and tracking hundreds of reports of bird deaths statewide.
"We'd like people to also put away their birdbaths and fountains that birds drink from – or clean them daily,” she says, adding that this should include a final rinse with water that contains about 10 percent bleach to kill the bacteria.
“And then if you have any ground below that has leftover feed that birds are still coming to, we ask you to rake or shovel up the feces and the seed casings, so that the salmonella bacteria is no longer active,” Montgomery says.
The guidance is to continue through at least April 1 in western Washington, when the birds commence breeding behaviors that make them less susceptible to salmonella infection. In eastern Washington, Montgomery says the switch is around March 1. Both of these dates are subject to change, depending on the data coming in.
And in the long term, Audubon’s advice is to grow more native plants if you want to help sustain local wildlife.
Montgomery adds that pet owners need to be especially careful because these sick birds often become lethargic – making them easier prey. And the salmonella can spread to cats and dogs. It can also be a problem for free-range chickens who might forage beneath the feeders and are already at risk this season from avian bird flu.
In the short term, state officials say take down all feeders and birdbaths unless you can commit to thoroughly cleaning them with a bleach solution every day.
“I have many bird feeders, and I have pulled them. I have a 3-year-old daughter and a full-time job. And I know that I can't commit to cleaning them every day,” says Claire Catania, executive director of Audubon Seattle.
She says she took hers down in November – knowing that even the normal cleaning protocols were too much for her at this time.
But she says she knows it’s pretty heartbreaking to have this outbreak happening during the pandemic, when watching birds could be a major source of daily joy for many people. And this year, there have been records numbers of them sighted by citizen scientists, who upload photos or other data to websites.
“A big flock of siskins is so much fun to watch. They’re a very gregarious bird with each other. So they're really a hoot to watch,” she exclaims. “It's definitely sad. It's counterintuitive to think that what you could be doing (by keeping feeders up) could actually be doing more harm than good to these birds – that hurts.”
But she reiterates the guidance: It’s dangerous for the birds to flock together right now because they spread the disease when they walk in their feces and then clean themselves. Audubon Seattle is still selling birdseed and feeders despite the salmonella outbreak. But they enclose a pamphlet with a warning: Use these only if you are able to commit to thoroughly cleaning your feeders and birdbaths with a bleach solution every day.
The abundance of finches here this year is apparently caused by a shortage of seeds in the boreal forest of Canada. That’s led to the spread of salmonella – and to record numbers of people finding and reporting dead birds beneath their feeders.
“I just looked at the numbers this morning. Beginning November 1st until today (Feb. 10), we have had 137 pine siskins come in the door,” says Dr. Nicki Rosenhagen, a veterinarian at the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood.
Compared to that exact timeframe last year, from 2019-2020, she says they had 13.
“Granted, not every single one of those had salmonellosis, but the vast majority did,” she says. “So a huge increase.”
She says she knows it’s hard for people who find joy in watching birds out their windows. But it’s a bit like the pandemic right now.
“Just think of COVID. You know, we need them to social distance – need to stay away from these group feedings – these restaurants,” she says with a laugh. “Stay home. That's what we're trying to tell the pine siskins to do.”
Note: The sounds of pine siskins in Washington, used in the attached audio story, come to us courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the MacAulay Library.