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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Salmonella Songbirds

Air Date: Week of April 10, 1998

If you're a bird lover and have feeders in your yard, you may have noticed some sick or sluggish birds on the perch. Over the past several months, the bacterial infection salmonella, the same disease sometimes found in poultry, has afflicted many flocks of songbirds across New England and parts of the Midwest. As Vermont Public Radio's Nina (Ny-nah) Keck reports, backyard bird enthusiasts can help to control the epidemic.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. If you're a bird lover and have feeders in your yard, you may have noticed some sick or sluggish birds on the perch. Over the past several months the bacterial infection salmonella, the same disease sometimes found in poultry, has afflicted many flocks of songbirds across New England and parts of the Midwest. As Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck reports, backyard bird enthusiasts can help control the epidemic.

(Birdsong)

KECK: At the Raptor Center in Woodstock, Vermont, the sounds of exotic eagles, owls, and hawks, mingle with the quieter songs with chickadees. Michael Cox, director of the center, says his office has been flooded with calls concerning the salmonella outbreak. Mr. Cox points to the chickadees at a nearby feeder and says unlike these healthy birds, sick birds are lethargic and have puffed up feathers.

COX: These birds affected by salmonella have also been observed eating a lot of snow. We can't really explain that. Salmonella causes a substance in the mouth, a cheesy substance that inhibits their esophagus and inhibits their trachea, so that is part of the reason that they are dying.

KECK: Salmonella is a bacteria that's common among many species. In humans it causes vomiting, diarrhea, and high fever, but it is treatable. In songbirds the disease is often deadly. Over the past several months, hundreds if not thousands of songbirds throughout New England and parts of the Midwest have fallen victim. Solid numbers are hard to come by because not everyone reports or even notices ill birds. In Vermont, pine and evening grosbeaks, as well as redpolls have been most affected. Other states have reported deaths among red crossbills, pine siskins, and goldfinches. The disease is spread in the birds' droppings, and Michael Cox says bird watchers can help break the cycle of infection.

COX: To help stop it, we are recommending that if you have had birds affected by the bacteria, to take the feeders down, clean the feeders with a 10% bleach solution, and leave those feeders down. Leave them vacant for 1 to 2 weeks, and that will get the flocks of songbirds to disperse. Once that has happened, then the feeders can be put back up. Discarded seeds, spilled seed around the feeders, is best -- that can be, should be raked up and should be disposed of.

KECK: The bacteria rarely spreads to people and pets, but it is possible. So wear gloves when handling feeders and wash hands thoroughly afterwards. Don't wash feeders in the kitchen sink, and don't let pets eat or play with any dead birds in the yard. It is common for songbirds to become infected from time to time, but this outbreak is unusually widespread. Dr. Kimberly Miller is a wildlife disease specialist with the United States Geological Survey in Madison, Wisconsin.

MILLER: In this instance, we're getting reports from 13 states in the Midwest and East, and this all was occurring at about the same time. And the reports were coming in not just from one bird feeder or one small town here and there; they were coming from multiple locations across these states.

KECK: Dr. Miller says experts don't know why the outbreak is so widespread, and it's also unclear why certain species are more affected than others. There are over 2,000 strains of salmonella, and backyard feeders aren't the only place that birds become infected. Standing water and regions with sewer or agricultural runoff can also harbor the bacteria. Neither Mr. Cox nor Dr. Miller expect this year's die-off to have a long-lasting impact on the songbird population, but it is difficult to watch. The Raptor Center's Michael Cox says in Vermont, nature is already helping to slow the salmonella outbreak. Over the past few weeks most of the healthy redpulls in the state have begun heading north for the summer, dispersing the population and slowing the cycle of infection. For Living on Earth, I'm Nina Keck in Vermont.

 

 

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