Spring is the Season when Salmonella Affects Small Seed Eating Bird Species at Feeders!
Spring is here! That is good news, but it is also the time when salmonella bacteria can affect the seed eating birds that congregate at your bird feeder. We’ve admitted many Pine Siskins and Common Red-Polls at Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI) during the past few weeks, all with the diagnosis of salmonella contracted at a bird feeder. Once a bird that weighs a tiny 15-18 grams becomes sick, the mortality rate is high.
Salmonellosis is a disease that occurs when large concentrations of birds use the same feeders and water sources. As our winter avian visitors prepare for migration north to their breeding grounds, they tend to gather in larger flocks and bulk up on food to sustain them for the long trip home. Salmonellosis is most often transmitted by fecal contamination of food and water by sick birds. The species most often affected are small seed eating birds such as Pine Siskins, Common Red Polls and Goldfinches.
Preventing illness in small birds falls to the owners of bird feeders or at least to the person that fills the bird feeder. You will be able to identify a sick bird at your feeder because of the “fluffed up” his body feathers. A bird uses its feathers in this way as a means to keep warm. Many homeowners that call REGI describe a “very fat” bird at their feeder. The reality is when a bird is fluffed, the opposite is true and the individual is close to starvation, despite food being available. A bacterial infection in any species mammal or avian is accompanied by a fever. Birds use their feathers just as we would use layers of clothing, to trap air between its feathers as a means to try to keep themselves warm. Sick birds are often lethargic and easy to approach.
If you can capture the bird, put it in a small cardboard box with a towel on the bottom and transport it to your nearest avian wildlife rehabilitator for care. If a bird dies, do not feed it to your cat or dog as they too can become sick as well.
Clean Feeders and Water Baths for Healthy Birds
Birds can also become sick from leftover seeds and hulls that get wet during the cycles of spring thaw and freeze. During periods of warm temperatures the wet seed can actually being to ferment causing fungus to develop causing a host of other illnesses. Rake or vacuum up excess seed or hulls from under the feeder, bag it and put it in the trash. Allowing the refuse to remain in an exposed pile will allow access of other birds, wildlife and your domestic animals to the bacteria and disease. It is best to clean your feeders about once every two weeks, more often during times of heavy use. Wash your feeder thoroughly in soapy water, then soak or rinse it in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Wooden platform feeders should be removed if possible to clean and dry them completely before reusing. If you are unable to clean your feeder, remove or cover it to prevent birds from using it. If you have canister feeders or tube feeders check to assure cracks have not occurred during the winter and that the seed inside remains dry. Consider moving your feeders occasionally to prevent the accumulation of waste in any one area. For ground feeding birds temporary "feeders" such as cookie sheets, clean flat cardboard or tops of storage totes can be used while your feeders are being cleaned. The cardboard can be discarded daily and the other items washed on a daily basis during times of heavy avian traffic such as during migration. This method will allow you will be able to continue feeding without exposing birds moving through. It is important to keep the birds safe an assure no domestic animals or feral cats are in the area that can prey upon birds feeding from the ground level.
As heated bird baths have become more popular it is important to remember they too provide a source of bacterial contamination. Provide clean water several times a day if possible and scrub out the bath often. (1:10 bleach solution) If you are unable to clean the baths remove them to prevent access.
Wild birds provide us with a great deal of joy and entertainment. With care, we can make sure our feeders and water baths are safe for them as well.