Frequently asked questions on salmonellosis in wild birds

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recently sent out a news release on an outbreak of salmonellosis that is killing wild finches in the northwest. The response to that announcement was huge. Not only did our phones ring off the hook at the department, and emails pour in, but we heard from several Audubon Society chapters and other birding groups that they were having the same experience.

We also received many, many reports of dead or sick birds to our online reporting tool. Based on these reports, input from the public, reports from wildlife rehabbers the department works with, and authorities in other states and Canadian provinces, we are now confident in saying that the outbreak is statewide and extends into other parts of the northwest.

Many bird watchers and lovers have contacted WDFW with questions regarding the salmonellosis outbreak. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions, and some answers:

Q. What is salmonellosis and how does it spread?

A. Salmonellosis is a common and usually fatal bird disease caused by the salmonella bacteria spread when birds flock together in large numbers at feeders. It spreads through droppings and other body secretions.

Q. How can you tell if birds in your area have salmonellosis?

A. The first indication of the disease is often a seemingly tame bird on or near a feeder. The birds become lethargic, fluff out their feathers, and are easy to approach. Unfortunately, by the time you may notice this, there is very little people can do to treat them.

Q. How can I help to prevent the spread of salmonellosis?

A. There are several things anyone can do to help:

  • Temporarily stop feeding birds at backyard feeders (see below for how long to abstain from this). Take down your bird feeders to encourage birds to disperse and forage naturally. Birds use natural food sources year-round, even while also visiting backyard bird feeders, and will be fine without the feeders. This includes suet. While the chance of transmission through suet is small, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Some may choose to continue to feed birds. If this is the case, please clean feeders daily by first rinsing the feeder well with warm soapy water, then soak in a solution of nine parts water and one part bleach for ten minutes. Finish by rinsing and drying thoroughly and letting the bleach smell dissipate before refilling.
  • If you do continue to feed wild birds, please reduce the number of feeders to a quantity you can maintain with daily cleanings, use feeders that accommodate fewer birds (such as tubes rather than platforms), and spread out feeder locations.
  • Put away bird baths and fountains that birds drink from (or cover with a tarp or garbage bag) as well, or clean them daily.
  • Keep the ground below the feeder clean by raking or shoveling up feces and seed casings and disposing in garbage rather than composting, as salmonella bacteria can remain active for a long time.

Q. Can hummingbirds catch salmonellosis? Should I take down hummingbird feeders as well?

A. While the risk of salmonella transmission is much lower with the design of hummingbird feeders, there is still some risk. To be as safe as possible and reduce the risk as much as possible, it would be best to take them down as well.

Q. Do I need to discontinue broadcast or scatter feeding of wild birds as well?

A. Yes, any activity that promotes a concentration of birds in one area should be discontinued for the time being.

Q. How long until I can put my bird feeders back up again?

A. WDFW reassessed the situation in late February and determined that reports of dead and sick birds were still coming in to the department. Based on this, it was decided to recommend that members of the public leave their bird feeders down until April 1, in both Eastern and Western Washington.

Q. Can salmonellosis transfer to humans?

A. It is possible, although uncommon, for salmonella bacteria to transfer from birds to humans through direct contact with infected birds, droppings, or through domestic cats that encounter sick or dead birds. When handling birds, bird feeders, bird droppings, or bird baths, wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly afterward.

Q. Can salmonellosis transfer to other animals?

A. Dogs, cats, raccoons, raptors and other animals can definitely become infected with salmonella, but actual reports of it happening are quite rare. Regardless, to reduce risk as much as possible, clean up (see how in question above) spilled seed and carcasses, and don’t let cats and dogs eat carcasses. Poultry are also susceptible to salmonella. Because WDFW’s purview isn’t domestic animals, you may want to contact the Washington Department of Agriculture or the WSU Extension office for information on how to keep chickens and other domestic fowl safe. Generally though the best idea is to keep their area clean and keep them away from wild bird feeding sites.

Q. How should I dispose of dead birds that I find?

A. To prevent the spread of salmonellosis, please wear gloves when handling dead or sick birds and put them into a plastic bag, seal or tie, and put in the trash. You can also double up plastic bags, put them over your hand, pick up the bird, then turn the bag inside out over the bird and seal or tie

WDFW recently partnered with the Seattle chapter of the Audubon Society for a virtual presentation and question and answer session on this topic. Watch it below.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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