Protect Songbirds from Salmonella Poisoning

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An outbreak of avian salmonellosis is killing songbirds in the Bay Area.

Please take down your birdfeeders IMMEDIATELY if you see sick or dead birds in your yard!

Update February 18, 2021:
WildCare continues to admit multiple songbirds ill with salmonellosis every day. Although the numbers have decreased slightly, the outbreak is NOT over.

This disease is spread from bird to bird primarily at bird feeders and bird baths.

Just since the new year began, WildCare has admitted over 40 Pine Siskins with the symptoms of salmonellosis. Sadly, the vast majority of these beautiful little songbirds have died.

WildCare’s Hotline 415-456-7283 has received multiple calls about ill and dead songbirds in people’s yards from throughout the Bay Area, indicating there is a widespread outbreak of bacterial disease.

The disease salmonellosis is a common causes of disease and death in wild birds.

Bird feeders bring large numbers of birds into close contact with each other, which means diseases can spread quickly through multiple populations. The bacteria are primarily transmitted through contact with fecal matter, so birds at a crowded feeder are much more likely to be exposed than birds in a wild setting.

Sick birds may be lethargic, puffed up and thin and may have swollen eyelids. A sick bird may also be seen resting with beak tucked under wing, and may be the last bird to take flight if the flock is startled. You can tell these sick birds don’t feel very good!

Guidelines:

Pine Siskin. Photo by Tom Grey
A healthy Pine Siskin shows his sleek plumage. Photo by Tom Grey

If you have dead or sick birds in your yard:

  • Immediately REMOVE bird feeders and birdbaths.
  • Disinfect with 9:1 bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach.)
  • Scrub well to remove all debris and allow to soak 10 – 20 minutes.
  • Rinse very well and allow to dry in the sun.
  • Do not rehang feeders or bird baths for at least three weeks after the last sick or dead bird is seen in your yard.
  • Resterilize and allow to dry before rehanging.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling feeders or baths.

If you have not yet seen sick or dead birds:

Please use the following guidelines as preventative measures to protect your local birds from a outbreaks of Salmonella and other avian diseases. These measures should also be practiced as regularly scheduled maintenance to ensure healthy birds:

  • Bird feeders should be disinfected every other day, or at least once a week, while the outbreak is active.
  • Bird baths should be emptied and cleaned daily, regardless of disease outbreaks.
  • For feeders: Do not use wooden feeders (they easily harbor bacteria and other pathogens). Immerse feeders in a 10% bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach.) Soak 10 minutes, scrub, rinse thoroughly and allow to dry fully, ideally in the sun, before refilling (a dry feeder will deter mold growth on seeds).
  • For baths: You can make a 9:1 bleach solution in a jug to bring outside. Scrub with a hard brush, cover with board while soaking to prevent birds bathing in bleach, rinse very thoroughly, allow to dry before refilling.
  • For hummingbird feeders: NO BLEACH! Change food often. Clean and fill with only enough to last 1-2 days (sooner if gets cloudy/moldy). Use vinegar and water in a 9:1 solution (9 parts water to 1 part vinegar) and special bottle brushes to get into small holes. Rinse thoroughly!
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling feeders or baths.

Additional Tips

  • Always wear gloves (latex or dishwashing) to keep bleach off your skin and a facemask to keep from accidentally ingesting feces, bleach, etc.
  • Always keep a large tray under feeder to collect hulls/seed that fall. Empty discards every evening. This will prevent mold & disease spreading to ground-feeding birds and will also prevent rodent infestations.
  • Keep cats indoors if you have birdfeeders.
  • Another suggestion to prevent wildlife problems (from rats, raccoons, skunks, etc.) is to bring feeders inside at night.
  • Bird feeders should be disinfected every two weeks regardless of disease outbreaks.
  • Bird baths should be emptied and cleaned daily regardless of disease outbreaks.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How likely is it that kids or adults could get Salmonella from handling the bird feeder or feed?

Salmonella is primarily transmitted through contact with fecal matter, so, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), avoiding hand-to-mouth contact during, and washing hands thoroughly with soap and water after contact with birds or their fecal matter will minimize or eliminate any risk.

The following recommendations from the CDC pertain to avoiding contracting Salmonella from domestic or exotic pets, but the general rules apply to wild bird feeders too.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water right after touching animals, their food (e.g., dry dog or cat food, frozen feeder rodents, etc.) or anything in the area where they live and roam.
  • Running water and soap are best. Use hand sanitizers if running water and soap are not available. Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water as soon as a sink is available. Adults should always supervise hand washing for young children.
  • Do not let children younger than 5 years of age, older individuals, or people with weakened immune systems handle or touch high-risk animals (e.g., turtles, water frogs, chicks, ducklings), or anything in the area where they live and roam, including water from containers or aquariums.

How can I avoid transmitting Salmonella from the birdfeeder in my yard into my home?

The CDC recommends always cleaning items that have been in contact with animals outside. If it is necessary to clean a feeder indoors, the sink or tub used for cleaning should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected with a bleach solution afterward.

Common sense precautions to avoid tracking bird feces into the house should be taken including checking shoes for fecal matter.

Are the domesticated birds in my home at risk?

Check with your veterinarian if you are concerned about your pet birds. Salmonella bacteria are transferred between birds from contact with fecal matter, so making sure domestic birds do not come into contact with the droppings, seeds or hulls from your wild bird feeders is the first step to ensuring their safety.

Can my cat get salmonellosis from an infected bird?

Check with your veterinarian if you are worried about your cat. Studies have shown that it is possible for predator animals to get salmonellosis from eating their prey, and cats can contract the disease. Cats under stress or with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to the infection.

WildCare strongly recommends keeping your cat indoors to prevent him or her from coming in contact with sick birds or other hazards, but also to protect the songbirds that are drawn to your yard by your feeder.

Is my dog likely to get salmonellosis from playing in the yard?

Check with your veterinarian if you are concerned about your dog or other pets. Salmonella is transferred from contact with fecal matter, so making sure domestic pets do not come into contact with the droppings, seeds or hulls from your wild bird feeders is the first step to ensuring their safety.

How often should I rake the hulls and fallen seed under my bird feeders?

According to Melanie Piazza, WildCare’s Director of Animal Care, for optimal bird health, and especially in an outbreak situation like this one, hulls should be removed every night.

The problem with feeder seed and hulls is that the birds sit above and knock seed down to the ground, but also drop their droppings down. As Salmonella and other bacteria are transmitted through feces, this means a concentration of potentially infected feces beneath the feeders which can be dangerous to ground-feeding birds, even when there isn’t an epidemic.

In fact, Melanie says that raking the hulls isn’t necessarily sufficient. The best choice is to put a pan or, even better, a sheet held down by rocks under the feeders and remove it and dispose of the hulls every night. This will also prevent rat and mouse infestations which is a bonus.

I’ve heard wood is better for cutting boards in the kitchen. Why do you recommend against wooden bird feeders?

This is a somewhat controversial issue in the kitchen— there are studies both proving and disproving the bacteria-killing properties of wooden cutting boards, and many chefs do prefer wooden cutting boards.

Whatever the best choice is for the kitchen, WildCare still recommends against wooden bird feeders for the following reasons:

  • Wooden bird feeders sit outside 24 hours a day and get cracked, soft and moldy which, Salmonella aside, can be detrimental to songbirds.
  • The wood used for bird feeders is usually not the same hardwood used for cutting boards and softer woods are more likely to mold and rot, trapping bacteria.
  • People are often less likely to want to bleach their wooden feeders because frequent soaking in bleach (especially of feeders made of pine and softer woods) will ruin them.
  • A plastic feeder will last longer through the recommended bleach soakings and can be rinsed and dried more thoroughly.

The main point, however, is no matter what kind of feeder you have, be sure to keep it clean!