Tough love for birds.

Healthy Pine Siskin

The local pine siskins are experiencing an epidemic, and I feel very bad about it for their sake and mine. Watching the birds at the feeders in my back yard, seeing the number of species increase every season, learning to identify and recognize most of them — it’s all been a steady comfort and joy. But now I need to encourage them to go elsewhere and find food in other, larger spaces.

It appears that in the case of the pine siskins, and in some places goldfinches, when they unnaturally congregate at feeders they keep spreading salmonella around. I’ve read news articles from British Columbia, Oregon, and California, all saying basically the same thing:

“Salmonellosis is an infection caused by bacteria of the genus Salmonella. These bacteria primarily attack the digestive system, notably the throat, making it difficult for the birds to feed. The symptoms are not always obvious in wild animals, but infected birds may appear thin, fluffed up, and lethargic.

Pine Siskin at my feeder last week.

“How you can help birds avoid disease:

“Salmonellosis is primarily transmitted by fecal contamination of food and water by sick birds, although it can also be transmitted through bird-to-bird contact.

“High traffic spots, such as bird feeders, create a source point of transmission and can exacerbate the spread of this deadly disease. Removing the feeders completely is the best solution to encourage birds to disperse, thereby minimizing the potential for infection. If you choose to keep your feeders up, they must be properly maintained to foster a healthy bird environment.”

They make it sound as though the outbreak has developed this winter, but now that I’ve seen images and descriptions of sick birds compared with healthy, I’m pretty sure that last winter some of the pine siskins (which I thought then were sparrows) at my feeders were ill.

Just last week I encountered one at the tray feeder who I now understand was “lethargic.” At the time, and back in 2019, I only wondered at how calm and friendly they were. I also thought it strange that some of them would sit contemplatively on the hopper feeder, doing nothing. Now I get that they were too weak to fly away.

The Cooper’s Hawk that has been coming around more boldly all the time, taking advantage of the flocks of finches, will probably stop visiting. I plan to stop feeding the birds at least until next winter. I am not the tidiest housekeeper anywhere, and if I need to disinfect the birdbath, fountain and feeders regularly in order to be a good bird-feeding friend, I think it best to revert to nature.

How can I explain to these creatures about the changes? “This hurts me more than it does you!” I do have lots of plants with seeds or fruit that various birds can enjoy, and have been eating all along. Plus insects — yes, a good supply of those. Many birds pay little attention to my seed offerings.

And I still have the hummingbird feeder!

On another garden topic, the daphne by the front door is getting really big and is covered with blooms right now. When the sun shines on it in the morning the scent wafts up at me when I go in or out, and I swoon.

11 thoughts on “Tough love for birds.

  1. That’s so sad! I need to see if it’s in TN too. It would be hard for us shut down our Hotel Hilton for the birds and Canada geese. They add so much joy to our day.

    To have a daphne in bloom would be heavenly! Sniff for me.


  2. This is an interesting take on bird feeders; I have not heard of such outbreaks in this country. Nonetheless I do clean my feeders every now and then and do not allow any leftover food to accumulate for more than a day. Fresh water is always available and the nectar feeder is cleaned daily when I fill it. With you having alerted me to this potential danger, I have right now made a note to ‘clean all the feeders’!


    1. Anne, probably most people who feed birds keep their feeders cleaner than I have done. I always knew I should clean them more often, but I think I didn’t understand the importance of doing it in my situation, the way I had set up a dining room of sorts for creatures that aren’t designed for that. On top of that I haven’t been keeping a clean dining room! Your bird-feeding style seems much more natural and healthy to start with.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am glad you posted this, I was just thinking it was time to disinfect the bird feeders, although we have not been feeding them this winter like we usually do. This morning when I stepped out front to breathe the fresh cold air, I saw what must have been a Western Bluebird fly across my neighbor’s yard. It was so lovely. You don’t see them very often in our neighborhood.


  4. We have stopped feeding our birds, too, and miss all the action seen from our breakfast table. I hope the birds do better. We have been assured that there is plenty of food available in nature for them, even at this time of year.


  5. Bird feeders need to be cleaned regularly in any case not just for birds already sick. But not daily, as far as I know, once a week will do. I think.

    I love Daphne Odora, they brighten up winter days with their dark leaves and bright flowers and their scent is heavenly.


  6. Ohhhhhhh….as I read this post, my sense of unease grew. I think I may be seeing at our feeders some of what you described.

    This is a sad time for all creatures under Heaven.

    Many thanks for this post, for your perspective, and for the info contained therein.


  7. I used to wash down my bird feeders with a mild bleach solution but I must admit I haven’t done that for a long time. Maybe once this extreme cold spell is over I’ll do that. Right now is the time that the birds need a little help surviving. The cold is forecast to be less intense by next week.


  8. I won’t be able to cut feeding for a few more months. But I’ve heard about a finch virus or infection– and that was back about six years ago and in Massachusetts. I wonder if it’s the same. So very sad.


  9. A helpful post! I had no idea salmonella was a problem. My own lack of bird feeders is mainly due to sheer laziness. With bugs and berries, it seems like there’s plenty of bird activity in my small garden. The hummingbird feeder is cleaned out frequently due to the number of ants that always manage to fall in.

    That daphne…. I’ve heard of its legendary scent but I think I’ve only come across some once.


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