Wildlife managers: Salmonella outbreak threatening region’s songbirds continues

Courtesy Keith GuntherA male Western Bluebird scouts out the approach to its nest near the intersection of Wallen and Larson Roads near Moscow Mountain in this 2019 image.

The persistence of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened songbirds across the Pacific Northwest is prompting fish and wildlife managers to recommend people either take down their backyard feeders or vigilantly clean them.

The problem has been documented along the west coast from California to Washington and inland at least as far as Idaho.

“I got a call from a citizen in Grangeville and another in Kamiah saying they had birds behaving strangely and matching the symptoms of salmonellosis,” said Joel Sauder, a nongame biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Lewiston.

Those symptoms include wild birds behaving tamely, displaying lethargy, puffing up or fluffing out their feathers and not flying away when approached. Birds displaying such behavior are well into the bacterial illness that usually is fatal.

In January, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife urged people to cease feeding birds or adopt strict cleaning regimes. That recommendation was extended this week.

“You can help to stop the spread of salmonellosis by discontinuing backyard bird feeding until at least April 1 to encourage birds to disperse and forage naturally,” said Kristin Mansfield, a veterinarian with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Birds use natural food sources year-round, even while also using backyard bird feeders, so they should be fine without the feeders for another month.”

Those who continue to feed are encouraged to take steps to help keep birds that visit their yards healthy. Salmonella is spread through bird droppings. Feeders attract large numbers of birds, where they congregate in close quarters and often walk through or come in contact with the droppings of others.

“In general for wildlife, high densities of animals in close proximity to each other is a recipe for disease being spread,” Sauder said.

That can be mitigated if the feeders are cleaned daily with warm soapy water and then treated with a mild bleach solution. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends reducing the density of feeders — the equivalent of social distancing for our feathered friends — frequent raking or shoveling of the areas beneath feeders to remove feces and seed casings and removing or covering bird baths.

Keith Carlson, an avid birder from Lewiston, has kept feeding but changed his routine. Carlson stopped disbursing feed on the ground and took down his feeders with wide platforms where feces can gather.

“And I got in the habit of washing them down with bleach periodically,” he said.

Carlson, a former Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner, said pine siskins, a species that is particularly vulnerable to salmonella outbreaks, are likely to be migrating soon.

“It appears to me, in our yard, they have started to head back north,” he said.

In a news release, Washington Fish and Wildlife officials said it is uncommon but possible for salmonella to be spread from birds to humans. They advise people not to handle dead or sick birds and to wear latex gloves when handling feeders or bird baths.

People can report birds with salmonella symptoms to local fish and wildlife agencies. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has an online reporting tool at bit.ly/2XFuStO.

More information, including a frequently-asked-questions page, is available at bit.ly/2MtwZ28.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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