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Sonoma songbirds under siege

How to clean birdbaths and bird feeders

Discard any remaining food or water.

Scrub with soapy water and rinse.

Soak in a diluted bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts warm water) for 10 to 15 minutes.

Rinse and allow to air dry.

A bacterial infection that is deadly to a songbird species is ripping through Sonoma County, and has at least one animal welfare organization asking residents to help stop the outbreak by taking down birdbaths and bird feeders for a month.

Salmonella is spreading through the county killing pine siskins, a small bird with yellow accents and brown, white and black streaks over its body, which is a member of the finch family. But it’s not just pine siskins who are at risk.

“It’s spreading pretty rapidly across all finch species,” said Katie Miller, rehabilitation hospital manager at the Bird Rescue Center. They have seen salmonella in American goldfinch, lesser goldfinch and purple finch, but it has been most prevalent in pine siskin, she said.

The Bird Rescue Center is asking people who have bird feeders and birdbaths to thoroughly clean them to help prevent the spread of the bacteria.

Salmonella spreads through feces-contaminated food and water, and can spread to humans and other animals though it is not fatal to mammalian species. In mammals, such as humans, dogs and cats, symptoms will present as if one has been food poisoned, Miller said.

If a pet becomes ill and there is a bird feeder or birdbath in their yard, Miller recommends informing their veterinarian about that to help the vet properly diagnose the illness that could be salmonella.

In the pine siskin― a species that is especially susceptible to salmonella and can carry the disease―the birds will appear fluffed or puffed up, lethargic and with sunken eyes.

Miller said they have been getting 20 to 30 calls a day since mid-November from people reporting ill or dead birds.

“This is a serious event that is happening in our avian community,” she said.

Cleaning birdbaths and feeders is recommended at least once a week, year-round, and during the outbreak it is suggested to keep them out of use for three to four weeks. This will prompt birds to redistribute into the environment and keep them away from any potential contagion, Miller said.

Ashton Kluttz, executive director of the Bird Rescue Center, said they recommend always cleaning bird feeders and baths year-round to prevent salmonella and other infectious diseases from spreading.

Salmonella is always a possibility, and keeping the places clean where birds congregate will minimize the opportunity for birds to become ill, she said.

There is typically a small residential population of pine siskins in Sonoma County, but due to a lack of boreal forest seed there has been an irruption and a “huge number” of the species migrated from Canada, Miller said.

The outbreak is not contained to Sonoma County. Miller learned through colleagues throughout the state that the problem is widespread. Portland Audubon reported an outbreak in late December, and the Wildlife Rescue Association of British Columbia reported it this month.

Kluttz said the organization has been seeing a cyclical pattern of peak populations of pine siskins, so this may be a problem that could repeat itself.

Visit birdrescuecenter.org/salmonellosis/ for more information.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

How to clean birdbaths and bird feeders

Discard any remaining food or water.

Scrub with soapy water and rinse.

Soak in a diluted bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts warm water) for 10 to 15 minutes.

Rinse and allow to air dry.

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