Fish and Wildlife: Clean bird feeders to avoid salmonella outbreaks

Kentuckians are encouraged to clean their bird feeders regularly to avoid the spread of salmonella through droppings. Although a blue jay is pictured here, three Kentucky counties, including Calloway, reported dead pine siskins that tested positive for the bacteria.

CALLOWAY COUNTY – The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is urging birdwatchers across the state to keep their bird feeders clean after recent tests found salmonella in several deceased songbirds collected from three counties, including Calloway.

A news release from KDFWR encouraged residents to pay special attention to their backyard bird feeders after birds from Bullitt, Calloway and Washington counties tested positive for salmonella bacteria.

“We are experiencing a higher-than-normal incidence of salmonella outbreaks at bird feeders this year,” said Dr. Christine Casey, state wildlife veterinarian for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “This has also been observed elsewhere in the United States. We would like to remind the public to clean feeders regularly to avoid spreading salmonella and other germs. Cleaning feeders frequently is always important when feeding birds. Feeders should be cleaned at least every two weeks with a 5-to 10% bleach solution and rinsed to remove any of the solution.”

In a telephone interview, Casey explained how the cases were detected locally and in the other two counties.

“Back in December, the avian biologist up here in Frankfort let me know that there had been some chatter on a Facebook bird group that some pine siskins were dying off, or they had seen some dead ones around,” Casey said. “So at that point, I let her (the biologist) know that if anyone collected any, to freeze them and we would collect them and we could send them off for testing. About a week or two later, our biologist out in the Purchase region, Wes McFaddin, had given me a call that a landowner had contacted him about some pine siskins and I let him know he could collect them from the owner.”

Casey said that although salmonella outbreaks among birds are not that uncommon, she would never want to assume that was the problem in case something else was happening. After collecting the deceased pine siskins, Casey said KDFWR submitted them to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study lab in Athens, Georgia. Tests confirmed the presence of salmonella in several of the birds.

“It’s a premier wildlife disease lab for the East Coast, and they do necropsies, which is basically an autopsy on a wild animal,” Casey said. “They cultured bacteria from the liver and the GI tract, and basically there were some pathologic changes in the tissue that were indicative of a bacterial infection. Then they tried to culture the bacteria out, and that’s when they got the salmonella result.”

Casey said she was concerned there might be a salmonella outbreak in Calloway County, especially since she received a phone call the same week from a landowner in Washington County, nowhere near western Kentucky. She said, though, that she was hopeful that the warmer weather might stop any further outbreaks, especially if bird watchers follow the KDFWR recommendations and regularly clean their feeders.

“Now that it’s warming up, it shouldn’t be as big of a deal because there’s other food sources for them and they’re less likely to congregate as much,” she said. “But especially in the winter, when animals are congregating around a food source, there’s always potential for disease transmission.”

Casey said the young and the elderly are most susceptible to salmonella, which could be transmitted to humans if they handle a contaminated bird feeder and touch their eyes or mouth. Care should be taken to avoid contact with bird droppings when cleaning feeders, and you should wear gloves and wash your hands frequently if doing so. She said that even if you don’t have a bird feeder, you should make sure to avoid touching any outside surfaces where birds have left droppings and to try to clean them off if they are at your home and you might accidentally touch them.

If you notice sick or dead birds by your feeder, KDFWR recommends the following:

• Taking the feeder down immediately. Remove any remaining seed from the feeder. Clean and store the feeder for two weeks. A salmonella outbreak at a feeder most likely results from one or more infected birds visiting that feeder. The bacteria then spread at the feeding site through the droppings of infected birds. Removing the feeder stops the birds from gathering in common areas. Instructions on how to clean bird feeders can be found online at allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/.

• When you put the feeders back up, try to put them in a different location, if possible, to avoid contaminated soil. Leftover seed still in the bag should be safe to use. Be sure to continue to clean feeders regularly. Watch for sick birds. If you see any, take the feeders down again.

“Bird feeding has grown in popularity over the past year with people spending more time at home during the pandemic,” said Kate Slankard, avian biologist for KDFWR. “It’s important to be good stewards when feeding birds by giving them safe and clean feeding areas. Salmonella is probably present to some extent every year, but this year seems to be worse than usual for outbreaks with negative effects. All species of birds can be affected by salmonella, but some species are more susceptible to severe disease than others.”

If you discover multiple deceased birds at your feeder after implementing the above recommendations for decontaminating your feeders, contact KDFWR by phone at 1-800-858-1549 or by email at info.center@ky.gov.