Feeders Linked to Songbird Deaths, Experts Urge Cleaning or Removal

A spate of recent deaths among certain species of finch in parts of the U.S. has been linked to bird feeders and baths, with experts advising either regular cleaning of the garden equipment or outright removal.

The deaths, which have been widely noticed by ordinary Americans finding dead birds on their property, are due to salmonellosis.

This is an infection caused by exposure to salmonella bacteria, which avian experts say has been exacerbated by birds crowding at domestic bird feeders and birdbaths. Recent harsh winter weather in Texas may have led to more hungry migratory searching for food elsewhere.

The pine siskin appears to be the species most affected. Many of the small brown and yellow songbirds have been found dead near bird feeders.

But the disease has also taken its toll on other finch species, including lesser goldfinches and American goldfinches, leading to a "concerning number" of deaths, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

The consensus among wildlife authorities is that bird feeders should either be taken down or cleaned thoroughly at least once every two weeks. There have also been suggestions that birdbaths be removed from gardens to help stop the spread. Though many Americans put up such equipment with the intention of helping the birds, at the moment the decision could prove deadly to them.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we are recommending that if you own a bird feeder you should clean it frequently with a dilute bleach solution (no more than 1-part bleach to 9-parts water) and allow the feeder to dry completely before refilling," said wildlife biologist Greg Batts of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

"If you suspect salmonellosis, the only option is to remove the feeder completely for a period of two to three weeks."

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also urged cleaning bird feeders earlier this week, while the Bird Rescue Center of Sonoma County, California, advised "the very best way" to prevent the spread of salmonellosis is to remove the feeders and birdbaths until next spring, by which time the pine siskins will have migrated north.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has reportedly been "inundated" with calls about sick and dead birds since December last year. Most birds die within a day of getting the disease, according to CDFW avian disease specialist Krysta Rogers.

"The key is to keep the feeders clean, keep the area around the feeders clean, and fully shut down feeding if dead or sick birds are found at the feeder," ornithologist Cliff Shackelford said in a statement to My San Antonio.

"If folks do not, diseases could continue to spread," he said.

Cleaning or removing bird feeders could also be important in order to protect other animals, such as domestic cats and dogs. People are advised to keep their pets and free-roaming animals away from potentially infected equipment and dropped seeds. Young children should also be kept away.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker at the Birdfeeder
Red-Bellied woodpecker at the birdfeeder. A "concerning" number of deaths among finches have recently been linked to bird feeders. Viviane Moos/Corbis/Getty Images