Wildlife that become dependent on non-wild food sources are more likely to get injured and are more susceptible to disease. In 2017, the city of Bellingham passed an ordinance that prohibited the intentional feeding of deer and raccoons for this reason.
Recently, wild birds have been dying at a higher rate, and birdseed feeders are being blamed.
On Jan. 8, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WSDFW) issued an advisory recommending the public take down birdseed feeders due to the spread of salmonellosis, a disease caused by the Salmonella bacteria. The advisory was updated on Feb. 23 to urge that feeders remain down until at least April 1.
The usually fatal disease, spread through fecal matter and saliva, is affecting pine siskins at the highest rates, but other birds that come into contact with the bacteria may be affected as well.
Alysha Evans, manager of the Whatcom Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, said the society is in full support of the advisory.
“We see this all the time in the environment, but not to this level,” Evans said. While Salmonella bacteria spread occurs naturally among wild birds, the high rate of deaths is unusual.
At this time, removing feeders is the most effective way to help. In fact, the wildlife rehabilitation center discourages the use of seed feeders at any time.
“Without feeders, there would not be a concern,” Evans said, explaining that bird feeders are the primary way this disease is being spread.
Plenty of winter food
It is a common misconception that wild birds require birdseed, Evans noted. People worry about not providing supplemental food for the birds, she said, but there are plenty of wild foods available, even during the winter.
Hummingbirds, however, are an exception. They have adapted to be reliant on feeders during the winter, so Evans advises the continued use of hummingbird feeders, which use a syrup dilution rather than seed. Since other species are not attracted to hummingbird feeders, there is less concern with disease spread. Even so, Evans emphasized the importance of frequent cleaning and liquid replacement for these feeders.
If people do not wish to remove their seed feeders, daily cleaning of the feeders and surrounding area is strongly advised, Evans said. It is important to clean any surfaces birds have landed on, as well as the ground below. Bleach or another disinfectant is recommended for daily cleaning.
Why so much disease?
A number of factors could contribute to this high rate of disease spread, according to Steven Harper, president of the North Cascades Audubon Society. 2020 was an “irruption year” — a jump in population — for the pine siskin. An irruption occurs after several seasons of successful breeding. Available food in the habitat is depleted more quickly, which leads to a greater rate of migration.
Pine siskin sightings have greatly increased this year, Harper said. Far from their native habitat of Canada, Alaska and northern Minnesota, the yellow-striped birds have been spotted as far south as the Gulf Coast, and even Bermuda, which Harper noted is very unusual.
Harper, who has been bird watching on the West Coast for 32 years, said this year’s population of pine siskins is the most he has seen in a single season. The unofficial pine siskin count from the Audubon chapter’s December 2020 bird count in the Bellingham area was 5,529; in 2019, only 1,556 were observed.
Bird watching, and as a result backyard bird feeding, has gained popularity with people staying home, and Harper echoed the wildlife rehabilitation center’s emphasis on the importance of responsible care.
“If you’re going to be feeding birds, you need to be cleaning constantly,” Harper said. He recommended that feeders be placed 30-40 feet from houses or directly next to a window to reduce the number of birds flying into windows. Feeders should also be out of reach of cats, another major cause of wild bird death.
From heartbreak to helping
Julie Whitacre, owner of Wild Bird Chalet in Bellingham, has been urging customers to take down their birdseed feeders since she first heard about the salmonellosis outbreak in January.
“I get to talk to people all day about birds; everyone loves birds a lot,” Whitacre said. “Everybody’s pretty heartbroken.”
Since January, she has been doing more education and outreach with her customers. Although people are encouraged not to feed wild birds just now, Whitaker, who studied biology and worked in habitat restoration before buying the business in 2019, suggested other ways to support the winged population.
Growing native plants — whether on an apartment balcony or in a backyard — and eliminating pesticide use can help.
When it comes to garden care, “don’t be too tidy!” Whitacre encouraged. Insects, aka delicious wild bird food, like to live under fallen leaves, which can be taken as permission to not rake up all fallen debris. “I like to say that caterpillars are nature’s sausages,” Whitacre said with a laugh.
People who do use seed feeders should choose types that are easy to clean, and should change seed often, she advised. Ensuring that food is dry and frequently replaced is crucial to preventing mold and other bacteria growth.
In their latest advisories, WSDFW has asked everyone who comes across a sick or dead bird to report their findings via the agency’s online reporting tool.
Evans acknowledged that discovering dead birds may be extremely upsetting for some, and offered the local humane society’s wildlife rehabilitation center as a resource for questions and recommendations. Although salmonellosis is very difficult to treat, the center does have some treatment options available, she said.
Other wildlife rescue facilities, including Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on San Juan Island and Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington outline procedures for bringing in sick birds on their websites.