Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Silent Spring: Salmonella in Songbirds

I finally heard red-winged blackbirds trilling away earlier this week. Patches of brown grass are surfacing through melted snow. And my dirt road is a slippery mud pit, cratered with brutal potholes and riveted with tire marks deep enough to sway the intended direction of your car.

There's no doubt about it: Spring is here in Vermont.

For the songbirds, though, spring often brings a silent killer. Have you had sickly looking goldfinches or pine siskins at your feeders? You're not alone. (Above: a goldfinch receives antibiotics at VINS.)

Salmonella is a bacterium found in many places, including bird feces. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, salmonella can be spread from bird to bird, either through the birds coming in contact with each other, or by consuming food or water contaminated with feces containing salmonella.

If you've seen birds hanging out at your feeder who look a bit off, they may have salmonella. Here are some signs of salmonella:


  • Puffed up feathers
  • Squinty or half-closed eyes
  • Lethargy, or hanging out on ground or feeder for an unusually long time
  • Low-to-the-ground, lethargic flight

It’s important to note these symptoms could be indicative of other illnesses or injuries. Take a look at your bird feeders. Are their piles of discarded seed beneath it? Is the seed wet and containing bird feces? If so, birds feeding on the ground could be ingesting salmonella. Has it been awhile since you've cleaned your feeder? Take in your feeder, throw out any old seed, and clean it in a bath of 10:1 water to bleach. Rinse it and let it dry completely before refilling it.

If you do have a bird you suspect is sick from salmonella, try capturing her and bringing her in to your local rehabber. Salmonella can sometimes be treated with antibiotics. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands if you handle the bird or its feces.

And finally, don't feel bad! Birds get sick -- that's a reality. Illness is often just part of nature. But we can all do our best to help songbirds stay healthy by taking good care of our feeders.

Join the VINS Manchester staff at The Vermont Bird Place for a spring cleaning event! Bring your bird feeders and houses and let us do the dirty work. Your feeder/house will be thoroughly cleaned and scrubbed with environmentally safe cleanser and will be all set to go for a busy spring season. Your donation of $5 per feeder/house will go directly towards supporting VINS environmental education and summer camp programming in Manchester.
If you have questions, please contact VINS-Manchester at 802-362-4374 or The Vermont Bird Place at 802-362-2270, 48 Center Hill Road, Manchester Center, VT.

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