How to protect songbirds, humans from illness

Focused On Health

American goldfinches are one species of songbird that can be affected by salmonella infection. People who provide food and water for wild songbirds can reduce the possibility of disease spread by regularly rotating feeder stations and properly cleaning feeders and birdbaths year-round. (Photo by Can Stock, Inc./EEI_Tony)

RAYMOND, Miss. (WJTV) – Mississippians who are concerned about the number of dead songbirds being found near feeders can follow tips from the Mississippi State University Extension Service when offering birds food and water.

In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed 19 people in eight states, including one person in Mississippi, were diagnosed with the same strain of salmonella that has sickened or killed songbirds. Human illnesses began in December 2020 after contact with contaminated bird feeders, dead birds or pets that had access to areas frequented by birds.

Mississippi scientists cannot say for sure if deaths of Mississippi birds were caused by salmonella infection.

How Salmonella Infects Birds

Adam Rohnke, a wildlife biologist with the MSU Extension Service, said the potential of salmonella transmission increases if the bacteria is present in the same area where large numbers of birds congregate.

“This year, our cold and icy weather in mid-February, combined with the timing of the pine siskin migration, meant that people had lots of birds at their feeders at once because it was hard for them to find food in the wild for several days,” Rohnke said. “In that situation, if you have just one sick bird, it can potentially infect many more.”

Salmonellosis, the disease caused by salmonella bacteria, spreads when healthy birds are exposed to objects or ingest food and water contaminated with feces from sick birds. The illness most often affects pine siskins, but American goldfinches and lesser goldfinches can also can be infected.

“But just because a bird was showing signs of being weak or sick after the storm doesn’t mean it was salmonella or another disease,” Rohnke said. “It’s much more likely the bird was suffering from stress because of harsh weather conditions and limited natural sources of food and available water.”

How to Prevent Illnesses in Birds

There are steps people can take to help reduce the spread of illness among songbirds. Rohnke recommends following CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting bird feeders:

1.      Clean bird feeders outside with warm, soapy water. Use a brush to remove fecal and seed residue. An old toothbrush works great. Rinse well.
2.      Soak bird feeders in a bleach solution of nine parts water to one part bleach for 10 minutes. Rinse well and let dry.
3.      Wash hands well with soap and water after cleaning feeders.

To minimize the possibility of pets spreading salmonella to humans, the CDC recommends keeping the animals away from bird feeders, birdbaths and the areas underneath them. People should always wash hands with soap and water after handling bird feeders, birdbaths and dead birds, as well as, after touching pets or their toys, food and bowls.

The MSU Poultry Research and Diagnostic Laboratory can test dead songbirds to determine the cause of death. If interested in submitting wild birds for diagnostics, contact the lab at 601-420-4700 for additional instructions.

People who want to submit a bird for testing should follow these initial steps for collection:

1.      Use disposable gloves to pick up the bird and place it in a plastic bag. Place that plastic bag in a second plastic bag.
2.      Place the double-bagged bird in the refrigerator if it cannot be transported to the lab immediately. Do not freeze it.
3.      Place the bagged bird in a cooler when mailing or transporting to the lab.
4.      Wash hands with soap and water after handling the bird.

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