Common backyard birds are a joy to watch flutter around your perfectly placed feeder in your yard, garden or deck. It is fun to see how many different species use the food source you’ve supplied to keep them nourished, healthy and coming back to your yard.
An important topic around backyard bird feeding that doesn’t get a lot of hype until a sickness or outbreak among birds is noticed, is cleanliness. Birds do their best with what nature has provided them to keep themselves clean, but if their primary food source is a backyard feeder where old, spoiled, or unattended food is left to decay, they can be in trouble. And this trouble can lead to infections in humans as well.
In spring of 2021, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were inundated with calls about residents finding sick or dead finches around bird feeders. A particular species, Pine Siskins (small, streaked, yellow-tinged songbirds in the finch family) , were most often the unfortunate birds affected. However other bird species are also susceptible to the bacteria. Pine Siskins can congregate rapidly and spread salmonellosis, causing large numbers to die within 24 hours.
What birds are affected
Pine Siskins can be found throughout the US, Canada and Mexico. They can contract salmonella when they eat birdseed that is contaminated with the feces from other birds, often on the ground below bird feeders. Birds often carry bacteria such as salmonella, and the germ can spread from birds to pets, and to people. In humans, salmonella can involve symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps, and tends to last four to seven days. People can recover without treatment, however severe cases may require hospitalization so it’s important to take symptoms seriously.
What to do if you discover a dead bird
Wear gloves! You can safely remove dead birds if you come across them, but wear protective gloves during disposal and wash hands afterward. Check with your state or local wildlife agency about reporting sick or dead wildlife. Place the bird in a plastic bag, tie the bag up, and throw it away, following your local officials’ instructions. Some locations may allow dead birds to be disposed in your regular trash. Wash your hands with soap and water when you are finished. Avoid the habit of touching your face or mouth. Wildlife agencies recommend regular cleaning of your bird feeding area and feeders to prevent further outbreaks. They also encourage using feeders from non-porous materials like ceramic, metal and plastic rather than wood, which can harbor bacteria and other diseases.
The Audubon Society recommends washing bird feeders with soapy water, before dunking them in a bleach-water solution. Cleaning bird feeders weekly or whenever they are visibly dirty can help prevent them from becoming a “breeding ground” for disease. It can also help to rake or shovel up feces or birdseed that has scattered below the feeder.Cleaning isn’t limited to bird feeders only, but should include bird baths and any places where birds congregate. Cleaning should also include nectar feeders as well.
Here are best practices for cleaning:
- Clean feeders outside your house when possible. If you must clean inside, use a laundry sink or bathtub and thoroughly clean and disinfect the area immediately afterward.
- Don’t clean bird feeders in your kitchen or where food is prepared or stored.
- Scrub feeder with warm soapy water to remove dirt. Rinse with clean water to remove soap.
- Soak in bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach) for at least 10 minutes.
- Rinse with water to remove any remaining bleach solution.
- Let feeder/parts dry before refilling it.
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching birds and feeders. Note: Kids love to help with adding bird food and maintaining feeders too, so if bird feeding activity is something you share with children, make sure to enforce hand washing to limit any exposure.
- Keep pets away from bird feeders and bird baths and the areas under them.
- If you find a sick or dead bird in your yard, remove your feeder and bath for two weeks and clean them outdoors.
Always wash your hands with soap and water:
- Right after:
- touching your bird feeder or bird bath
- handling a bird, even if you wore gloves or used a bag
- touching your pet or pet’s supplies (like food, bowls, and toys)
- picking up your pet’s feces (poop), even if you used a bag
- Before you eat or drink
What if I’m feeling sick?
Here are some of the severe Salmonella symptoms, but if you’re in question you should always seek help from medical professionals:
- Diarrhea and a fever higher than 102°F
- Diarrhea for more than 3 days that is not improving
- Bloody diarrhea
- So much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down
- Signs of dehydration, such as:
- Not urinating (peeing) much
- Dry mouth and throat
- Feeling dizzy when standing up