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August 3, 2021
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Backyard birds threatened by Salmonella outbreak

  • The bird on the left is a healthy pine siskin, the bird on the right is a pine siskin with salmonella.

By: Brandon McCapes
February 12, 2021

Avid birdwatchers of Sonoma County may have recently seen an unfamiliar sight around their bird feeders: small bird species looking puffy and acting docile enough to be picked up.

The birds’ unusual appearance and behavior has caused many to rightly worry and bring the birds into local animal hospitals and rescue centers like the Bird Rescue Center of Sonoma County.

According to Ashton Kluttz, executive director of the Bird Rescue Center, local birds—especially pine siskins and other finch species—are suffering from a salmonella outbreak related to an earlier migration from Canada this year.

“Fluctuations in food sources within a species' normal habitat can result in 'irruptions' or movements to different locations with more adequate food sources,” an email communication sent out by the organization states. “This year, we are experiencing one of the largest irruptions of pine siskins in recorded history because their normal wintering grounds throughout Canada's boreal forest are experiencing a shortage of birch, alder and conifer seeds.”

Because the hungry birds, a commonly-found “small, heavily streaked, yellow-accented” member of the finch family, have had to migrate south at earlier times than in usual years, they have been 

congregating around bird feeders in greater numbers, causing a larger outbreak of salmonella than usual.

Salmonella is a type of bacteria, which, when it infects humans, can cause gastrointestinal problems. Unfortunately, according to Kluttz, the infection in often fatal in pine siskins and other finch species.

While the outcome for birds is not generally good following infection even if they are brought into hospitals and rescue centers like The Bird Rescue Center, Kluttz still encourages concerned bird enthusiasts to bring infected birds in for care.

“We can try to provide care, but unfortunately it tends to be a more fatal one for these little ones,” Kluttz said.

Salmonella spreads throughout avian populations when they come in contact with feces-contaminated food and water. They then transmit the illness to other birds, wherever they congregate in close quarters, often human-provided bird feeders and baths.

Kluttz told The Voice that the best thing people can do to help protect these birds it to remove feeders and baths until the birds species most affected migrate further south.

“What we are recommending from Bird Rescue is to simply remove your feeders altogether. It’s been in such large numbers that the recommendation is to just take them down until late spring,” Kluttz said.

During normal year, Kluttz also recommends emptying and cleaning feeders and baths with bleach once a week, and recommends people wear protective gloves and masks when doing so.

The Bird Rescue Center has received over 150 birds for care since the beginning of this year, and 88 of those were finches infected with salmonella. The center said that while pine siskins and other finches are the most likely to be contract the illness, other birds species and even humans are at risk of infection if they come in close contact without taking proper safety measures. 

She said the center is working with California Fish and Wildlife to help track the spread of the disease. If residents are able to capture sick birds—while wearing gloves and a mask and washing hands with soap and water immediately following contact—they are advised to keep the sick critters in soft-sided, well-ventilated containers such as tissue boxes. Hard or jagged cages such as those made out of wire are not recommended, as the already afflicted birds could further injure themselves.

If residents are unable to capture the birds, or if the birds are found dead, they are advised to either bring the dead birds into a wildlife rescue center in order to remove the disease from the community, or else report mortality numbers to the California Fish and Wildlife by emailing WILAB@wildlife.ca.gov, calling (916) 358-2790 or using an online form on the organization’s website. 

Kluttz said the birdwatching community has been active in helping respond to the outbreak, and her organization is helping to spread the word through email and other communications. Concerned locals have also taken to social media groups, such as Sonoma County Firestorm Update, to help inform their neighbors of the need to take down bird feeders and baths.

“We’ve seen an overwhelming positive result from this,” Kluttz said. “We have a community that has a really values wildlife.”