News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Songbird diseases strike in Central Oregon

As if the outbreak of COVID-19 weren’t enough for us to contend with, now there is a chance that salmonella (or something worse) has begun to spread through the passerine birds of Central Oregon.

Back in the end of June, Bob Hertzler, of Sisters, discovered several dead red crossbills under his feeders in his back yard. Other reports also came in about dead local songbirds. Last Thursday, Bunny and Mark Thompson, also of Sisters, found several dead red crossbills under their feeder.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, Corey Heath presumed it was salmonella when contacted. He added, “There have been several cases of it lately around Bend and, unfortunately, there will probably be more.”

Salmonella, especially salmonella enterica, is commonly found in the intestines of wild birds. Birds exposed to a contaminated environment may become infected accidentally, such as with domestic pigeons and some waterbirds, which then gets passed on.

The most significant outbreaks of wild bird salmonellosis occur in songbirds that gather in large numbers at bird feeders. But even then, these birds have an immune system that keeps the bacteria from killing them — usually. However, according to retiring local songbird rehabber, Elise Wolf, pine siskins fall victim to salmonella all too quickly, which in turn may spread to other birds.

Salmonella may not be the only disease killing songbirds, however. Wolf has seen many dead songbirds in her career and has noted that one thing may kills finches, or siskins and something else may kill crossbills.

In that light, she is suggesting a different approach to looking into dead songbirds, including window strikes. A bird hitting the window is pretty obvious; but why the bird hit the window could be due to a myriad of reasons — one of which could be the bird was momentarily disoriented because it was sick.

So, like with humans and the COVID-19 virus, there are actions that must be taken to ensure the bird’s salmonella infection doesn’t spread and then keep going to infect humans, although that risk is minimal.

According to a Deschutes Public Health spokesperson, any dead bird must be removed immediately. Do not touch them without proper protection. Also, if an outdoor cat comes into the house with a dead songbird, quickly put on throwaway gloves, wrap the cat in a towel, isolate it in a comfortable place and watch it. Then, place the dead bird in a disposable sack along with the gloves. The final resting place for the contaminated materials is in a container headed for the Knott Landfill.

The growth of the bird-feeding business, which has promoted bird watching, bird loving, and general interest in wild birds all over the U.S., is also contributing to bird diseases. If not cleaned frequently, bird feeders can become contaminated with feces that allow bacteria and virus contamination to grow to life-threatening levels.

Wolf suggests, “To solve bacteria outbreaks like salmonella at our feeders, it is critical that everyone does a thorough cleaning on the feeders from time or time or when they discover sick birds. Wash, then soak for 10 minutes in five- to 10-percent bleach solution, wash again, then rinse. I like to put feeders back up after washing in order to support ill birds that might be able to fight off the infection if given food. This does, however, mean frequent feeder cleanings.”

If you come upon a dead songbird in your yard, your neighbor’s yard, the city park, or underfoot anywhere, contact Wolf at [email protected]


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