The bird world is aflutter with an outbreak of Salmonellosis, the disease caused by the bacteria salmonella. Salmonellosis is spread among birds when they congregate in large numbers, like at feeders or bird baths. The bacteria are transmitted from saliva and droppings. The outbreak has been affecting finches, particularly pine siskins, among other songbirds. The disease is lethal to birds.
Birds affected tend to become lethargic and often intimidated by humans and other predators. The most prudent recommendation is to remove backyard birdfeeders to prevent spread. Lucky for me I had completely neglected our feeder all winter until last week. Birds will feed on wild forage as well. Planting shrubs and trees with berries like currants, service berry, or rosehips, letting your sunflowers overwinter, and not deadheading your ornamental grasses are great ways to help the birds eat naturally in your yard through the winter. If you can wait until spring to do your fall clean-up, you’ll be doing the animal world a favor.
If you don’t want to stop feeding the birds all together, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recommends placing only one feeder out per day, and disinfecting it each evening with a 10% solution of one part bleach, nine parts water. Their website, wdfw.wa.gov/news/help-protect-wild-birds-deadly-salmonellosis, provides some great information regarding this epidemic.
Another reason to stop feeding the birds is that you may be feeding or endangering other critters along with them as the disease can spread to any mammal. You can protect your domestic cats and dogs by removing the feeder, so as to not lure a sick bird into your yard. WDFW recommends not allowing cats outside as sick birds are especially easy prey. Even without salmonellosis spreading in birds, free roaming domesticated and feral cats are responsible for the vast majority of bird deaths around the world, over 3 billion birds per year in the continental United States. Cats are contributing to the decline in neo-tropical bird migration and are second only to habitat loss in what is an overall decline of birds worldwide. Please keep your cats inside for the safety of the birds and for the safety of your cat.
If you have a feeder that can be reached by deer, they are quite hungry this time of year and will find it. The deer in our neighborhood have been relentless. They have taken to jumping into our rabbit hutch and stealing the bunny food!
In general, feeding wildlife, other than birds, is not recommended. Deer digestive tracts are quite sensitive to changes in diet and high carbohydrate founds in feed. WDFW predicts the salmonella outbreak to ease up by April, until then, diminish your feeding and follow the guidance to protect all birds, wildlife, and domestic animals.
One cannot ignore the obvious parallel between this bird outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. Removing your feeder is akin to wearing a mask and social distancing. What works for birds works for humans (sort of). While not all birds are infected, it’s important to not allow them to gather in large in large numbers where disease can spread. We can’t mask birds, but luckily, we can mask up. Wearing a mask protects others if you are an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. Birds don’t know they have salmonella until it’s too late and have already spread the bacteria, same goes for COVID-19.