Birds & Birding

Take Down Your Feeders: Salmonella is Killing Songbirds

March 24, 2021

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© David Clow / Flickr

Editor’s Note: This post is about a salmonella outbreak that occurred in several parts of the United States in winter and spring 2021. It is a disease that pops up with some regularity, and can be spread via concentrations of birds at feeders. Please contact your state wildlife agency to determine if this is a problem in your area. And remember, cleaning and disinfecting your feeders is always a good practice.

 

I’ve lived next to the same retired couple for 20 years. They’re kind with words and consistent with seed. Their place is breakfast for the birds. My place is the bathroom. I saw my first Steller’s jay on our shared wood-slat fence last spring. Exciting. But I’ve cleaned up bird poop for 20 years. Not exciting. I’m regularly hosing down my backyard because my neighbors keep a full bird feeder in their front yard.

Well, they did until this year. I walked the block last night. Their bird feeder is empty and cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. As it should be.

Eastern Idaho, where I live, is in the middle of a salmonella outbreak. It’s not a localized occurrence. Birds across the West are sick and spreading the illness as they congregate then migrate. Cases are coming in from Washington to Utah and to the east, North Carolina is having trouble too.

While bird feeding is experiencing a pandemic boom in popularity, feeding birds at this moment is having dire consequences. Birds are dying in no small part due to bird feeding.

You can still enjoy birds. But it’s time to remove seed and take down the feeders.

bird on a dead flower stalk
A pine siskin. © _Veit_ / Flickr

Outbreak

Songbirds are prone to salmonellosis, commonly called salmonella. Pine siskins are songbirds and they experienced an irruption over the winter. That’s a population explosion so there’s a lot of them flitting about this winter. Many of them are sick.

“This is the biggest outbreak I’ve heard of and I’ve been following birds for 25 years,” says Nicole Michel, National Audubon Society director of quantitative science. “It all ties into pine seed crops in the boreal regions where they usually are. There weren’t enough seeds so they came south. They’re weak because they’ve traveled farther than they’re used to and they’re congregating wherever they can eat.”

Salmonella starts when bird food gets wet. That’s how the bacteria grows on seed then it spreads through feces dropped in the same place. Salmonella is a fatal bacterial infection for birds and it’s hitting siskins hard because they congregate around feeders, but the outbreak isn’t species-specific. Anything eating seed in your yard, resident or migrator, can spread or contract salmonella. The three Ds of symptoms include ‘depressed, drowsy and diarrhea.’ Depression won’t be obvious in wildlife, but drowsy will. Infected birds close their eyes often and they puff up, like they do in cold weather, but they’re not cold. They’re sick.

California started seeing more cases in December. Other states are seeing an uptick this spring as the bacteria continues to spread, which is why more state agencies are asking people to remove their bird feeders.

“When large numbers of pine siskins congregate, the disease can spread rapidly causing high mortality,” says Krysta Rogers, California Department of Fish and Wildlife senior environment scientist and avian disease specialist. “Most birds die within 24 hours of infection.”

© Kurt Bauschardt / Flickr

Clean Your Feeders

What those birds leave behind, feces and germs, lingers and it comes in contact with anything else enticed to perch nearby. That’s why you have to clean.

Clean feeders once a week with warm soapy water in normal years. Clean them several times a week during salmonella years like the one we’re in now. Better yet, clean it with one part bleach to 10 parts water.

Soak the whole thing in that solution for about 10 minutes then air dry the container while you remove spent grain and other waste from the area around and under the feeder hanger. Put on gloves before you clean and wash your hands after handling equipment or collecting dead birds.

© Jason Bowler / Flickr

Encourage Avian Social Distancing

Especially this year, don’t stop at cleaning. Put your feeder away for a month. Michel, based in Portland, Oregon pulled her feeder for two months. If you must rehang your cleaned feeder, hang it empty.

“There’s a lot of other food sources they can still find,” Michel says. “The risk of death by starvation is lower than the risk of death by salmonella if you keep a contaminated feeder up.”

It’s the concentration of birds in one place that spreads the problem, but they won’t hang around if there are no hand-outs. The birds need to social distance to save themselves. And not to worry, they won’t starve without your supply.

“Although stopping feeding may seem like it will harm birds, in reality, they use feeders as just one source of food and will quickly disperse to find other food sources and in so doing, reduce transmission of this disease at feeding sites,” says Tempe Regan, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional diversity biologist. “Sanitation is critical and it is your responsibility to ensure your feeders are not facilitating disease transmission.”

© Jamie McCaffrey / Flickr

Dogs & Cats

Disease transmission to humans is possible. In mammals, the symptoms are more like food poisoning, but pets are a bigger concern especially. The drowsy symptom mentioned above may cause a bird to stay on the ground when approached. Obviously, the same is true if it dies. That’s an easy meal for a predator allowing the disease to spread to and/or through your furry family member. Keep dogs and cats out of hunt mode in your neighborhood this spring. (And better yet, don’t allow your pets to roam freely and hunt wildlife, ever).

Refraining from feeding birds can be a bummer, especially those new to the birding hobby. But you can still watch what’s moving through without feeding it. The birds are still around. If you have a yard, you may want to consider incorporating natural landscaping that provides habitat without concentrating birds.

Backyard birding has become so popular that is has fueled a seed shortage. But now is not the time to search for seed. Keep the binoculars and field guides handy. For the time being, though, forego the feeding to help the birds you love.

Kris Millgate

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. See more of her work at www.tightlinemedia.com. More from Kris

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69 comments

  1. I’m not sure what to think about this. Sure it’s important to clean feeders once a week but to quit feeding? I’m not so sure, especially in the winter.

  2. I don’t have a feeder but have been scattering seed on our gravel driveway since this winter. I feed 2 cups black oil w feeder select once a day. Does this sound problematic? We live out in the country.

  3. I removed all bird feeders when I first became aware of
    the salmonella outbreak with these birds!
    But then I watched them come in early evening looking for their birdseed. Thought they were really hungry!
    I put them back the next day.
    This a.m. I took them away again after reading Kris’
    informative article! Thank you, Kris!

  4. Is this a problem only in the areas listed? I recognize that it always has the potential to happen anywhere, but some specific areas were listed, not the entire continent.

    1. It is particularly bad in the western US this year. But birds travel. It could easily spread. Play it safe and temporarily take down the feeder.

  5. Does this mean we also should not put out water for birds or other wildlife? I have a small bird bath hanging on a tree branch. I have a large water tray on the ground for wildlife. Are either or both of these possibly contributing to the salmonella problem? It is a drought here, there will be no rain for months, and there is no other easily available water source. Lots of small animals pass through — squirrels, foxes, bobcats, domestic cats, racoon gangs, etc. Please advise. (I’m in Northern Calif. and the bird salmonella is bad here.)

    1. It would be good not to concentrate birds at this time. Most recommendations are for feeders, as that particularly has birds feeding in one area. But to be safe — temporarily take down the bird bath.

  6. Is this recommendation for the whole country or more for the west? We live in Pennsylvania.

    Thanks!

    1. It is severe in the West but there have been outbreaks documented in North Carolina. It would be a good idea to take feeders down for a bit, wherever you are. Thanks for the question.

  7. Interesting article! Makes sense, I just never thought about cleaning a bird feeder. I’m in MN. Is there an outbreak of salmonella here? How long should I leave my feeder down if that’s the right thing to do? I haven’t noticed any dead birds. Are there bird feeders that keep rain off of the seed? You’re right about the cost of seed going up- I just bought some yesterday.

    I don’t need this to be posted to the public.

  8. Thank you, I had no idea this was currently happening. Although I’m in Michigan I’ll start a cleaning program immediately.

  9. Interesting. On March 24th my local Audubon (I live in Kitsap County, WA) posted a notice that it should be OK to reintroduce (clean) bird feeders as of April 1st. Better safe than sorry, but curious about the discrepancy.

    1. Hi Kassie,
      There is a lot of different advice out there. I think it is better safe than sorry, especially as birds move around. Here, I have seen advice to keep them down until mid-April.

      Cheers,
      Matt

  10. I am sad to hear this. I clean my feeders and am cutting back to two in front two in back. I live on 5 acres. I also spread seeds on the ground. Have found no birds sick or dead.

  11. Excellent informative article. I certainly do not want to kill birds, especially with kind intentions. I usually put out 1 cup mixed seed during the winter months. I do this to supplemental feed, but once Spring arrives it is removed so as to not attract bears, and encourage the birds to forage. The constant filling of a bird feeder throughout the day, I am guessing is of the most concern but I will make sure to keep the feeder and ground beneath clean. Thank you.

  12. I live in the Northern Kentucky area near Cincinnati, OH and have been keeping up with this problem in the West for a few months. Glad I did because around mid-March I noticed an obviously affected siskin at my feeder. I checked the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife website and found that there was an alert for my state regarding the salmonella outbreak. So I would suggest that no matter what state you’re in, do some online digging. I took all my feeders (4) down on March 18th and it was really tough at first watching the birds come by wondering what happened, but they’re still around in the landscaping and trees. Though a bit sad, I do feel better that I’m not inadvertently killing them. I plan to do a good deck scrub this weekend and clean and disinfect the feeders. KY recommends only taking down for two weeks but I plan to leave down for a month or even a little longer.

  13. So not only do they want humans social distancing, now the birds. Clean the feeder and keep feeding.

  14. I feel some of the problems going on with birds and other animals is ww have genetically modified grains, vegetable. Our water is poisoned from,chemicals, both of which is from spraying, spreading, and our waate and other animals waste that take pharmaceutical,drugs, vaccines, and more.
    We have oil companies that are destroying the earth, actually the human racexis worsw than any VIRUS. So do not,blame the salmonella on,the birds.

  15. Audubon recommends rinsing the feeder after using the bleach solution, as does the Fish and Game article linked above. Can you add the rinsing step to your directions above? Just want to make sure the bleach is rinsed off the feeders before seed goes back in. Thank you!

  16. As of March 31, it is safe to put your birdfeeders back up in WA state.
    This story was originally reported in January.

  17. Irresponsible to infer this is an issue nationwide. Sanitation of feeders and feeding areas should be done regularly not just when there is an outbreak.

    1. It was a significant problem in the western United States (as stated in the article) and was showing up in other areas.

  18. I call BS on this. They lost me at Socialized distancing the birds. Clean your feeder if it gets moldy…but for Pete’s sake don’t let this stop you from enjoying a great pastime with the birds.

  19. What if i raise little finch birds on the inside of my house?

  20. But they said to keep your bird feeders down until April. I took mine down in September 2020. It’s now April 2021. They said the pine siskins will be migrating back to the north. Missouri is already allowed to put their feeders back up. Is that true for North Carolina? My blue birds are nesting and the gold finches gave returned. I really missed feeding them. But I want to be sure that I can put them back up now or soon. I loved your informative article on this topic. Thanks for sharing the advice of your experts. ❤️

  21. I have had my feeders down for 2 weeks. Waiting for the ok from bird experts to tell me its ok to put them up again.

  22. How do I know when it’s safe to put up my bird feeder again

  23. Really?? Shut down feeding birds???I live in Chested County Pa, And winter hasn’t quit quite yet. I purposely sprinkle seeds on the ground to let about 6 Species plus squirrels ample room

    1. In many parts of the country, feeding birds was killing them. This outbreak was also spreading fast. It did not affect Pennsylvania this year, so you should be fine. However, cleaning feeders is still a good idea.

  24. Is this a nation wide problem ? What about Wisconsin? When do we resume feeding?

    1. It was widespread in the western United States and was popping up in other areas. I saw no reports for Wisconsin. At one point, it was spreading rapidly, so caution made sense. I would check with your local state wildlife agency for their input.

  25. Any idea if this is everywhere in the world or in Southern CA?
    Also does this go away unlike our ongoing covid nightmare of 2 years
    Tx

    1. It is not everywhere in the world. It has been fairly widespread in the western US and conservationists were concerned that it was spreading. It has been documented in California, but mainly in central and northern parts of the state.

  26. How sad I love watching the birds but not watching them die. Do you know if they are having problems in northern CA?

  27. Hi Kris.
    I would like to make a comment on this. The situation and solution you describe could be accurate. But, of course, like all the shutdownsd for Corona-virus, it will have its implications, probably severe. I’m an amateur birder, so I’m kind of hooked into the birding community. I’ve heard absolutely nothing about this. zero. That’s doesn’t mean it’s not a thing, but I would like to point out three sources of information about birds that have no peer. First, there is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. As far as I know, there is no more authoritative source than Cornell. If there is a sense among bird experts that people needeto take down feeders in mass, you can be certain Cornell would be involved. The Audubon Society is another. Finally, there is the birding community itself, consisting of state and local groups of birding enthusiasts. These are highly dedicated, highly passionate, highly informed, and highly knowledgeable people that include not only amateurs, but professional biologists who specialize in birds. These people know their stuff, and they keep their ears to the ground. Before I suggested that people take their feeders down in mass, I would make sure and consult at least these three sources. All the best.

    1. Hi Jason,
      Thanks for your comment. You are correct that there was no nationwide call to take down bird feeders. However, the salmonella outbreak was well documented throughout the western United States (as noted in the story) and there were other outbreaks far from the west, as in North Carolina. The outbreak was severe this year. Given this, and the fact that this spread rapidly, it seems caution is a very sensible approach.

      I do understand your concern for the birds and for your fear about unintended consequences. However, it is very rare that birds starve without bird feeders.

      These outbreaks do pass so it should be safe for most to put their feeders back up soon.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Matt Miller
      Cool Green Science editor

  28. Hi Matt. Jason again. Thanks for your comment. My real point, though, I don’t think has been addressed. My concern is the lack of references, especially authoritative sources like the Cornell Lab. I would have felt much better had they been consulted.

  29. If you are feeding birds, learn to identify them. The birds spreading the disease in 2021 are Pine Siskins. If this species is visiting your feeding stations, especially in larger groups, take your feeders down and clean them and follow the directions to keep feeders down until the Pine Siskins situation resolves.

    Cleaning of feeders must be done weekly. If this is something you don’t feel you will do, stop feeding birds. It is that simple. Always wear protective/disposable, water proof gloves when handling feeders. First, use a mild, non bacterial soap like Mrs. Meyers to clean feeders. Use hot water. Use a hose and a strong stream of water to remove droppings and rotting seed. The one to ten bleach solution is best, soak the feeders in it for ten minutes as suggested after washing to sterilize feeders.

    As suggested by another commenter, after soaking in the ten percent bleach solution, the feeders must be carefully rinsed with clean water to remove ALL traces of bleach. Then, feeders are left in the sun to air dry.

    Sound involved? Caring for any animals is. Shelters are filled with dogs and cats that owners were unable or unwilling to properly care for. Learn what is involved before taking up animal care. From feeding birds to owning any creatures, study carefully what is needed by YOU to do it correctly. Bottom line is that you will kill birds if you don’t.

    If bird feeding is to much for you, just stop. We don’t own wild birds. Unlike other animals we keep as pets, the good thing about finding out bird feeding is not your cup of tea? The birds will do just fine, without your help.

    One other thing, dogs and cats are able to contract salmonella under your feeding stations. Move the feeders frequently. Clean under them. If at all possible, keep feeding stations out of areas where your dogs and cats hang out. Dogs can contract salmonella and pass it on to humans. Also, cats kill birds. If your cat attacks and kills birds using your feeders, they are not helping them.

    Use common sense when cleaning feeders. I would not use your kitchen surfaces to clean feeders. Your dogs may also track in bird droppings full of salmonella and other diseases, depositing them on your carpet, beds and furniture if they eat grass and old seed under avian feeding stations. Yummy!

    As for hummingbird feeders, it is suggested they are changed and cleaned with soap, ten percent bleach soak and hot water every three to five days. As with seed feeders, make sure the bleach is completely rinsed away and then air dry the hummingbird feeders in the sun before refilling with fresh sugar water containing no red dye.

    If you can’t accommodate your birds properly, then stop feeding them! It really is, that simple.

  30. I have the same birds that come every night Cardinals in particular and then I have a white bird that is an albino Sparrow I do believe I find it awfully hard to stop feeding these birds what should I do? I live in Indiana

  31. The salmonellosis was spreading among Pine Siskins and Finches here in the WEST. The Siskins and Finches are migratory and move up to Canada in Spring. Audobon and Cornell advised temporarily removing feeders in Winter and early Spring. It’s okay to put clean feeders out once there are no Finches or Siskins in your area.
    Here, in Northern California, we are now getting Cedar Waxwings, Robin’s and Orioles. It’s okay to put feeders and birdbaths out now.
    Please always clean your feeders and birdbaths at least 1x a week. You wouldn’t want to eat off plates or drink from glasses that haven’t been washed and neither do our birds and other wildlife. 😊🐦
    Thank you

  32. I live in Southern Oregon and this is the first I’ve heard of the salmonella. Several of us used to feed birds around my apartment complex but we stopped a year ago due to some complaints.
    Unfortunately, we are still feeding some of the feral kitties in the neighborhood and the birds are now eating the cat food. This is both a lure for the cats to catch the birds and bad for the birds congregating.
    I have tried several different things to keep the birds out of the cat food like pinwheels and ribbons but it seems they have adjusted to both. Any suggestions?

  33. Why aren’t we seeing gold finches at our feeders in Grand Rapids, Michigan? Could it be the salmonella outbreak? I cleaned both feeders and used fresh niger seed Thank you.

  34. I’m in Houston Texas. This is so so sad. I have an array of 3 feeders. 2 are metal with pencil sized bar that the pine siskins line up on to eat. The other is a vertical tube feeder. My mixed flock numbers above 50 birds that regularly congregate at my feeders very nearly at the same time. I know there are more than two dozen pine siskins. They are delightful to watch. There’s a young family of 6 cardinals. My new home office overlooks the yard (abutting a park so lots of open space) and I’ve been looking for signs of sick birds since Houston put out this Salmonella alert. Sadly, this morning, I found a sick siskin on the ground and could do no more for it than carry it in gloves out to some brush and leave it there. No time to take it to the rescue and I’ve heard they don’t survive long. I’ve taken down the feeders. It’s heartbreaking to see all the birds coming for their regular feed time and look lost. I’ll miss them.

  35. I put out a bird feeder for the 1st time in my life and am enjoying the various birds that are feeding there. I live in central Florida, is this a concern here?

    1. Hi Denny,
      The salmonella outbreak has not been documented in Florida this year. However, it is still good practice to clean and sanitize your feeders regularly.

      Thanks,
      Matt Miller

  36. As we await the return of Humming Birds to southeastern PA, it’s sad to read of the plight occurring out west. I happened to see a large Martin house yesterday that was so filthy I hope that no bird would use it. In my opinion, as a practical matter, feeders should be cleaned between fillings as opposed to a fixed interval. Currently we are seeing a family of Eastern bluebirds, and a family of Red Finches at our feeders. The Bluebirds are the first we have ever seen in the 45 yrs we have lived here.

  37. Can a back yard bird feeder affect chickens? I’ve recently lost 2 chickens one , one day and 5 days later another they both died the same way

  38. Thank you. This was very helpful. It is heartbreaking that salmonella is further decimating our beloved bird population. I’m taking my feeder down and cleaning up the seeds on the ground first thing in the morning.

  39. We live in AZ. Backyard bird watching has changed our lives for the better, esp during the pandemic. However, we would NEVER do anything to hurt any of the wildlife. I’m wondering if dry drought here would prevent salmonella. I will wash the feeder regularly.

  40. Perhaps only scatter bird seed feed on the ground or a high surface like a flat roof,this will still feed the birds and avoid the need for feeders, it won’t stop the squirrels but will give the birds a chance to survive

  41. I live in Minnesota, and have taken to cleaning my bird baths and feeder every two weeks. No evidence of ill or sick birds to this point. Is there data regarding salmonella in birds in MN?

    1. Hi Wendy,
      This outbreak occurred in the western United States, but birds do move around. I would check with your state wildlife agency.

      Matt

  42. I don’t know if cicadas will arise in every region but I know they will be swarming here in KY. All birds here will get plenty to eat for at least a month or two and get to social distance while getting their belly full.

  43. I live in Los Angeles, California. I have been feeding and enjoying the birds from my terrace for several months.
    All my singing birds seem just fine. There are no signs of illness detected at all. Now I am very concerned about the salmonella infection. I also get regular visit from a squirre the same one. And he/she seems just fine also.
    Should I really take the feeder down? If so, for how long? I’m a member of an Audubon Society and monthly donner.

    1. Hi Misa,
      Thanks for your question. I would check with your local Audubon staff or state wildlife agency. The salmonella outbreak was pronounced in winter and early spring, but it is difficult to know where it is still present. I’d look into it locally and make a decision based on that.

      Best,
      Matt

  44. I saw our dogs playing with a Grosbeak yesterday May 7th 2021 and managed to get them to leave it alone. The bird then sat on the ground and made no attempt to fly away. I thought it odd, I then saw the bird on my truck and watched as it attempted to fly and couldn’t. He wobbled and flopped in the air, I was close by and reached out and caught him just as he plummeted from the air into my hands. I took him to a tree and set him on a branch. A short time later found him on the ground again, we have several dogs and I knew the bird would not be safe, so I walked him out to the back of our property behind a fence they dogs can’t get through. It wasn’t long and I found the bird in our yard again. I put him in a pet carrier and began searching for someone in our area to take and care for the bird as I noticed his eye’s were closed and one was really a mess. This led me to our local Audubon Society and in talking with them they informed me about this disease and that the bird most likely was infected. I had no idea, I took the little creature to a local Vet that will rehab him if possible. I suspect he won’t make it, please do not disregard the information and at least for a short time take down your feeder’s. I am now watching my dogs for symptoms and I handled the bird not knowing about any of this. So I too may have become infected, time will tell…

  45. Birdfeeders can inadvertently cause the death of many birds for other reasons. The birds invariably knock seed to the ground as they flick the seed around to find their favorite morsels. Some may then drop down to the ground to forage for the scattered seeds. That is when any feral or domestic cats in the area may spot them and pounce on them.