Concern Over Washington Songbird Salmonella Outbreak Wanes; Vigilance Still Encouraged


Warnings of sick songbirds contaminating feeders spread throughout Washington earlier this year and led to many bird lovers taking down feeders or ramping up their cleaning tactics.

The salmonellosis they carried was infecting other birds through droppings and saliva.

Things have improved lately, though the Washington Department Fish and Wildlife encourages people to continue to take cleaning precautions, especially after human salmonella cases tied to wild songbirds were reported nationwide.

What happened

The salmonellosis outbreak in Washington was occurring among songbirds, particularly pine siskins. The DFW first put out a notice of the outbreak in early January after receiving reports of sick and dead birds.

Cases were primarily reported on the west side of the state.

"We were told this was due to the irruption of birds coming down from Canada," said Staci Lehman, Fish and Wildlife communications manager for Eastern Washington.

DFW asked that people take down feeders through April 1 to prevent birds from flocking together, creating potential for spread through droppings and saliva. Birds have natural food sources, so are not reliant on feeders, the department said.

Beyond birds

The outbreak didn't just impact birds. Earlier this month, the CDC reported that there have been 19 illnesses in humans related to the outbreak across eight U.S. states. Eight people were hospitalized.

Six of those cases were in Washington, according to the state Department of Health. Residents in Clark, King, Lewis, Kitsap, Spokane and Thurston counties reported illnesses, and three people were hospitalized.

Salmonella can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain in people. Severe cases can lead to death.

DOH says that salmonella germs "can spread between species of birds, to pets and to people. Wild birds can carry the germs, even if they look healthy and clean."

To prevent illness in humans, individuals should wear gloves and wash hands after handling bird feeders, Lehman said. They're encouraged to clean feeders regularly and sweep underneath them.

The outbreak's decline

After announcing the outbreak, DFW began receiving reports of sick or dead birds from all over the state. But the emphasis remained west of the Cascades, Lehman said. There were 881 reports of sick or dead birds in January. In February, that began to decline, with 223 reports, followed by just 88 reports in the first three weeks of March.

The nearest reports to Yakima County in March were in the Tri-Cities area and northeast of Ellensburg.

Kerry Turley, the president of the Yakima Valley Audubon Society, said he had not observed pine siskin dying of salmonella in south-central Washington. He said this was likely in part because more of these birds migrated west of the Cascades than east.

With reports of sick birds statewide declining over the months, DFW "could see that the outbreak was slowing, but still present," Lehman said. "That's why we have the word to put feeders back up, but with caution."

Now that spring is here, Lehman said trees and plants are blooming and creating more food sources for birds, helping to reduce traffic to bird feeders. She said the combination of this and birds beginning to migrate ahead of breeding season are likely contributing to the declining spread.

Regular cleaning, glove wearing and hand-washing are still encouraged by DFW, as is diligence in cleaning up spilled seeds.

This isn't new practice, Turley said.

"Those of us who feed birds should keep in mind that regularly cleaning our feeders, including hummingbird feeders, is always a good idea," he said.

Continued caution

Bird enthusiasts should continue to pay attention to the health of the birds visiting their feeders.

"If you observe sick or dead birds in your area, that's an indication that salmonella is probably still affecting your local birds, and that you should again remove feeders for a time," DFW said. Sick birds might be indicated by a "seemingly tame bird on or near a feeder," the organization said in a recent blog post.

"The birds become lethargic, fluff out their feathers, and are easy to approach," it adds. "Unfortunately, by the time you may notice this, there is very little people can do to treat them."

As bird enthusiasts continue to practice caution with feeders due to the outbreak, DFW also encourages those who live in bear country to keep feeders down, as they can attract bears coming out of hibernation.