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Songbirds dying at birdfeeders

by on January 08, 2013

pine siskin, Carduelis pinus
pine siskin, Carduelis pinus. Creative Commons photo by Becky Gregory.

A number of local bird rescue groups are reporting an outbreak of salmonella among pine siskins, small songbirds that are common at Bay Area bird feeders this time of year.

Wildcare of Marin sent dead birds to a lab for testing and confirmed that they died of salmonella. “The disease Salmonellosis is a common cause of disease and death in wild birds,” said the organization in a statement. “Bird feeders bring large numbers of birds into close contact with each other, which means diseases can spread quickly through multiple populations. Salmonella bacteria is 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.”

Rescue experts recommend that residents remove and clean bird feeders every two weeks and bird baths daily, regardless of disease outbreaks. And if you see dead birds in your yard, it’s important to remove feeders, wash them thoroughly, and leave them down for at least a month. Read the full recommendations, including how to protect yourself from the disease while cleaning feeders.

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frances sutton on February 18th, 2013 at 5:41 pm

I have lots of Pine Siskin’s dead at my feeders , some passed at my feeders last year I bought special food for them . but I live in Ellijay Ga. I have never had problems like this before . they have been like this when they first came here. I don’t see them in summer and the weather here has been bad. I don’t know if that is what they have . they act real hungry ,but are very picky. I have lots of other birds here ,none of them are sick. I cleaned the feeders out when they need it. thanks if you would give me your feedback. it bothers me that I cant make them well . frances

Dan Rademacher on February 19th, 2013 at 10:43 am

At first, we heard this was due to disease at feeders, but more recently we’ve learned this might simply be a result of a natural “irruption” of pine siskin populations that happens every so often, and more siskins means more dead siskins, especially when the “extra” birds are migrating to unfamiliar territory (like coastal California or Georgia) already occupied by other birds. Mount Diablo Audubon recently published an article about this, page 8 of this PDF. And here’s an Audubon page on the overall phenomenon.

Erma Short on March 4th, 2013 at 9:15 am

This is the first year for Pine Siskins at my feeders here in Northeast Texas in several years. I have found about a dozen dead birds and my neighbor has found some as well. I now have found three other people with the same problem. We all purchase our seed at the same place so was beginning to think it might be the seeds. We are attempting to reach other birders to see if they have the same problem. I clean my feeders on a regular basis but I may need to clean them more often.

Dan Rademacher on March 4th, 2013 at 10:36 am

I think this is further proof that this is simply an irruptive year for pine siskins — millions more pine siskins, spreading out into marginal habitat (for them) and new areas where they don’t know the lay of the land. The result is more dead birds. See my previous comment for links to some more expert commentary on this. Seems like an unfortunate but natural event.

Janette Gross on March 16th, 2013 at 5:26 pm

I live in Santa Cruz, CA and have found at least one dead Pine Siskin a week. Sometimes from flying into our windows (which have decals that seem to keep the other birds from hitting them), sometimes just lying on the ground – today one had his mouth full of seed! I have at least 5 other kinds of birds at the feeders and they are all fine. This is the first winter that I’ve had this many Pine Siskins (20 or more). They are very aggressive at the feeder, unlike the sparrows and goldfinches. I clean the feeders and use hulled sunflower seeds from various vendors. It’s really sad and it seems like there’s nothing that we can do except not feed the birds at all, so they go some place else?

Dan Rademacher on March 16th, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Everything we’re hearing is that there’s simply a huge population of pine siskins this year, and lots more therefore at the edges of their range, without good claim on territory, etc. Sad but apparently a natural cycle, or at least nothing to do with the cleanliness of individual bird-feeders.

Robert on April 9th, 2013 at 7:57 am

April 9, 2013-This is a record year for me for Pine Siskins in Dallas. I just have tons of them, and they are absolutely veracious feeders ! In past years when the Goldfinches arrive I would see 1-2 Pine Siskins along with different flocks of 20 or so Goldfinches. But, this year has just been incredible. I wonder how deep into Spring they might stick around? The Goldfinches have already broken my heart for the season , and have not been around for weeks .

Marie Helene on April 16th, 2013 at 1:15 pm

April 15, 2013 – Found 3 deads or close to death on the ground, in my driveway and in the grass today. The one I found still barely breathing was looking fat. I thought it was a pregnant one. I took him and put it in a box and he died within 10 minutes. I live in Rock Hill, SC.

Derek Sheffield on April 25th, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Thanks for these posts. The Audubon article helps provide some perspective. But here’s my question: Why are these siskins dying at our feeders? Are they also dropping dead in the woods?
I’ve had 3 die at my feeder in the last two weeks. I find them on the ground among the remnant seeds and shells.

Dan Rademacher on April 26th, 2013 at 10:28 am

Hi Derek, yes our understanding is that the siskins are dying both at feeders and in the woods. But we haven’t actually seen any data to back that up. Robert’s comment from Dallas is supportive of the idea that there’s just an unusual number of siskins. One idea would be to contact your local Audubon chapter — local birders who spend lots of time in wild landscapes might be able to shed light on whether there are lots of siskins also in natural habitats. But seeing small birds dead in the wild in any number is tough — nothing like a feeder over a patio or lawn to see the evidence!

Derek Sheffield on April 25th, 2013 at 9:13 pm

p.s. I’m in central Washington State.

Robert in Dallas on April 27th, 2013 at 9:02 am

For whatever it’s worth, I have not discovered any dead Pine Siskins near my feeders or birdbaths this entire Winter and early Spring here in Dallas. My #’s are still huge for Pine Sisins relative to any years previous. This is the peak of the migratory season here for Pine Siskins and Goldfinches, and to have #’s this large, at this point in time, is pretty incredible. I’m almost beginning to wonder if they are going to migrate back!

Jeannie on April 29th, 2013 at 6:31 am

I’m in North Carolina and have found two dead & one dying siskin in the last three days. No other birds show any signs of illness. I do try to keep things clean including the bird bath, but am in the process of dismantling my feeding station as a precaution. I have already disposed of my remaining seed. After a more thorough than usual cleaning and raking, I’ll start over with all clean stuff in a week or two. I am anxious to determine if I have a problem or if it’s part of a natural cycle as Dan thinks. But I thought it important to share that it is happening here as well. I see another poster is in South Carolina. Seems to be all over the country.

Lisa Welsh on April 29th, 2013 at 11:13 am

I live in southern Arkansas and I started noticing Pine Siskins dying in my yard about a month ago. Since then I found at two or three a week. It seems this is happening around the country. I find it strange that it is only the Pine Siskins and no other song birds that come to my feeders. I did not realize that these birds could get salmonella.

Lisa Welsh on April 29th, 2013 at 11:15 am

I also have a larger than normal amount of Pine Siskins this year. And they do go through the seed! I love to watch them though and hate to see them dying.

Robert on April 29th, 2013 at 11:57 am

I wonder if it’s possible that some of these Siskins that are dying are in their 1st winter, and possibly don’t know how to sustain themselves in an area they have migrated to.-?

Dan Rademacher on April 29th, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Could be, Robert. I have an inquiry out to some Audubon experts, and I hope to report back soon with more authoritative information! Stay tuned.

Dan Rademacher on April 30th, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Hi Robert, and other posters. I just spoke at greater length with Diana Granados of Audubon. Check out more info on the siskins here.

Debbie on May 4th, 2013 at 7:23 pm

I live in central MN, and I too have found at least found 10 dead pine siskins in my yard. I get a large variety of birds at my feeders and have not had any other birds die.

emma rohl on May 13th, 2013 at 8:51 am

REMOVE BIRD FEEDERS. and remove them permanently. these are bird killers not only encouraging spread of disease but HONEST people admit that predator birds hunt and eat the defenseless in great numbers at the feeder.

the wall street journal ran an article concerning how feeders promote not life for birds, but early disease and death. these small finches must be one of the most endearing bird out there, charming and wonderful to watch…..how very very sad.

susan on May 22nd, 2013 at 1:13 pm

I have not seen any dead birds but I have had 2 that looked blind. They looked sick. I do keep my feeders clean and new seed. I do not buy to much at a time so they go through it fast.
This is so sad.

BETSY on May 26th, 2013 at 8:35 pm

I live in Georgia, south of Atlanta. I have had about 6 die in the last couple months. I had a ton of Pine Siskins come through a few months ago, now only a few left. Many of the same examples as posted above.

Robert Benjamin on August 28th, 2013 at 9:02 am

Hello Emma, You’re right that it’s very possible to spread disease at bird feeders from bird seed
contaminated with salmonella from bird droppings. It’s a big threat to bird populations everywhere. Starting a year ago, I developed prototypes for a bird feeders system that is a 100% poop-proof set up for the birds. Feeder is designed where droppings cannot accumulate on surfaces that the birds may perch on when visiting the feeder. I submitted the prototype to Droll Yankees earlier this year at their request. They then proceeded to do nothing to even evaluate it. After 21 weeks at their facility I asked them to send it back. To make things worse they obviously intentionally damaged my prototype with a hammer. But, long story short, Droll Yankees , along with all the other manufacturers of bird feeders in the US don’t care a lick about developing cleaner, more sanitary bird feeders. And, what’s really confusing to me is how Naturalists, and Orinthology departments write articles trying to bring light to this threat to the health of backyard
birds, but they offer ZERO solutions as to how backyard birders can do anything to help stop the spread of bacteria at their feeders. Regularly cleaning feeders is not enough, too. There is no way
to protect your backyard birds 100% of the time from droppings that may accumulate on a feeder.
That’s why a feeder system like mine was at least a step in the right direction, because it does not
require the birder to clean it but 1 time a week, or so. The poop-proof feature of my bird feeder system really works 100% of the time, protecting birds from ever being exposed to droppings that may accumulate on the feeder. But, it’s been my experience over the last 18 months that bird feeder manufacturers in the US don’t care. All they care about is making a bird feeder for 1, and selling it for 2. Even more disappointing for me though was the fact that I got no response from institutions like the Orinthology department at Cornell, and the Nation Audubon society when I
tried to even discuss these threats to bird health often spread by dropping covered feeders. So, when prominent institutions like this are apathetic about this, why should bird feeder manufacturers care? Well, guess what- they don’t. Solutions to this serious threat to backyard bird health can only start by addressing what type of feeder systems individual birders have in place in their backyards, and whether or not it is a system that harbors droppings and fosters bacteria. Protecting birds from salmonella contaminated seed also requires the added step of trapping bird seed that hits the ground from feeders, as it can get contaminated to. So, dealing with this takes a comprehensive approach. Yes, I’m disappointed my 100% poop-proof bird feeder system is not going to make it to market. That doesn’t mean though that this threat to bird health is going to go away along with me. I’ve been an avid backyard birder for 25 years now. So, at the end of the day I it always feels good to know I am always providing a more sanitary feeder system for the birds that visit my feeder system. By the way, I spent about 2000 hours refining and developing the prototypes for my bird feeder system. So, this involved a lot of trial and error to get it right.

Robert Benjamin on August 31st, 2013 at 12:50 pm

I would also like to point out that as I now have no financial interest in pursuing bringing this feeder
system to market, I offered to donate the design and prototype of my poop-proof feeder system to the Cornell lab , and The National Audubon Society for educational purposes, but they did not respond to my offer. So, I guess the status quo will be to only write articles about the spread of salmonella in bird populations caused by exposure to bird dropping covered feeders. If I am mistaken, maybe someone could point out to me 1 thing of substance that has been done to
curb this threat to backyard birds. Most feeders on the market can be poop-proofed, especially thistle and seed tubes , which probably make up the majority of feeders.

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