Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology has tracked and studied bird diseases. Here are answers to common questions.
What symptoms do birds with salmonellosis show?
A bird with salmonellosis appears tame. It might sit quietly for days in a sheltered spot. Often, its feathers are fluffed out, and you might see it hold its head under its wings. As the disease progresses, the bird might exhibit a wobbly head and staggering walk. You might witness shivering or convulsions, and the bird might have trouble swallowing. Within a few hours after the symptoms show strongly, the bird simply falls over and dies.
Is my bird feeder killing birds?
Birds pick up the salmonella bacteria at places other than bird feeders. But human observers most easily and usually see birds at feeders. Your feeders probably are not killing birds.
What can I do to prevent the spread of the disease?
Temporarily take down your feeders. This gives you time to clean up under the feeders and allows the birds that are used to feeding there to temporarily disperse. Before replacing the feeders, clean with a 10 percent bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts of water).
Practice good sanitation when cleaning to minimize the risk of spreading the disease to humans or pets. Wear rubber gloves if you handle sick or dead animals or feces. Wash hands afterward. Clean feeders in a bucket rather than the kitchen sink. Keep pets from eating sick and dead birds.
Avoid crowding at feeders. Provide plenty of space between feeders. Several are better than one, as they help decrease the bacteria load. Store seed in rodent-proof containers to prevent rodent droppings in seed. Replenish food often.
What else can I do?
What infected birds need most is water. The disease causes dehydration. But water must be kept extremely clean and fresh to stop spread of the disease. Only federally licensed rehabilitators or veterinarians can legally administer antibiotics. The National Wildlife Health Center staff are concerned that use of antibiotics on wild birds will create a highly resistant strain of salmonella that could impact poultry, pets, humans.
Do birds with salmonellosis always die?
No. Some studies show that infected birds can remain healthy even as they pass the disease to other birds. Many birds become sick only if they're under stress from severe weather or other causes.
What should I do with dead birds?
Dispose of birds by wrapping them tightly and placing them in an outdoor garbage container with a tight lid.
How common is the disease in the East and Midwest?
A major outbreak of salmonellosis was reported in the northeastern United States in the spring of 1988 and in 1999-2000. It is more common in the West and Northwest, where every few years a die-off of pine siskins usually occurs. It is not known if salmonella outbreaks are due in part to milder-than-normal winters.
Which species have been hardest hit during the most recent outbreak?
Pine siskins, American goldfinches and common redpolls.
Can humans get salmonella from bird feeders? What about pets?
The National Wildlife Health Center reports that there are more than 2,000 strains of salmonella bacteria. Many different birds and mammals can be infected. Specific strains usually affect specific animals. However, it's possible that the strain typically seen in songbirds could cause illness in humans and domestic animals.
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