Frequently asked questions on salmonellosis in wild birds

MARCH 26, 2021 UPDATE: A drop in the number of reports of sick or dead birds across Washington and other northwest states means backyard bird feeders can be put up again around April 1, but with caution.

An outbreak of salmonellosis in pine siskins and other songbirds had WDFW staff asking people with bird feeders and baths to put them away for a few months earlier this winter to discourage wild birds from congregating and potentially passing salmonella bacteria to each other. When birds flock together in large numbers at feeders, they can transmit the disease through droppings and saliva.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also confirmed cases of salmonella in humans recently. believed to have been passed from infected birds.

Since WDFW first put out word of the outbreak in early January, reports of sick or dead birds have decreased substantially, but they are still coming in.

“The disease is still circulating, and we could see the numbers jump back up if we ease precautions too quickly,” said WDFW veterinarian Dr. Kristin Mansfield. “If you usually feed birds at multiple feeders, consider putting up only one or two- widely spaced on your property- to start.”

You may also wish to use feeders that accommodate fewer birds (such as tubes rather than platforms) and continue to keep the ground below bird feeders clean by raking or shoveling up feces and seed casings that could spread salmonella. Provide only enough feed to last a day or two — in support of regular cleaning efforts within that same span; and to help keep wastage underneath the feeders down and manageable for cleaning under feeders. These measures assist in spreading birds out and keeping seed fresh and feeders clean. Use extreme caution when handling bird feeders or baths to avoid spreading the salmonella bacteria to humans. When filling or cleaning feeders, be sure to wear disposable gloves and wash hands thoroughly afterwards.

If you live in bear country, consider leaving your feeders down as they can attract hungry bears coming out of hibernation this spring.

WDFW is still asking for reports to our online reporting tool if you encounter sick or dead birds. The first signs that a bird may have salmonellosis is often a seemingly tame bird on or near a feeder. Birds infected with salmonella become very lethargic, fluff out their feathers, and are easy to approach. Unfortunately, at this point there is very little people can do to treat them. Some birds with salmonella are asymptomatic though and can continue to spread the pathogen without visible signs of being sick.

More information on salmonellosis in wild birds is in our original blog post below:

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: Are there ways to observe and help birds other than feeders?

A: Naturescaping involves planting native plants and installing wildlife-friendly landscape features that provide shelter, food and water for a variety of species. Rather than providing supplemental food like a bird feeder, naturescaping provides animals with needed habitat. WDFW’s Habitat at Home program has lots of information on how to make your property more wildlife friendly, even if it is a small area, or the PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society) resource library has more information on naturescaping and planting native plants.

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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