The state's wildlife specialist for the Virginia Cooperative Extension is asking citizens who feed birds to exercise caution in order to help stem a current salmonellosis outbreak in birds from Maryland down through Appalachia.

Specialist Jim Parkhurst, who is also associate professor of wildlife at Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources, says, "The best action that bird feeders can take at this time is to practice good sanitation with their feeding stations."

Virginia citizens, particularly those in the western and southwestern parts of the state, have been reporting a significant number of deaths of perching birds, particularly those common to bird feeding stations such as finches. Parkhurst emphasizes, “While the bird die-offs due to salmonellosis, the most common bird-feeder disease, may show up anywhere in the commonwealth, the current problem is not yet epidemic statewide. This bacterial disease occurs in wildlife in regular cycles, and we appear to be in one of those up cycles.”

Salmonellosis is a disease in animals and people caused by bacteria called salmonella. Birds, which die quickly once infected, can pick up the bacteria at feeders, where infected birds pass the bacteria in their fecal droppings and contaminate the food. No medical treatment is known to completely cure birds that become infected with salmonellosis. While there are no distinctive signs associated with salmonellosis in wild birds, citizens might look for ruffled feathers, droopiness, diarrhea, severe lethargy, emaciated bodies, or seizures. Birds that display heavily encrusted eyes as well as some of those same symptoms likely are infected with mycoplasmosis, another disease currently present in Virginia.

Parkhurst, who has advised the state’s Extension agents on the current salmonellosis outbreak in songbirds, urges people who feed birds to keep the feeding stations clean by taking some relatively easy steps:

  • Prevent overcrowding by providing birds lots of space.
  • Use a rake, broom, shovel, or shop vacuum to clean the area of waste food and droppings, which should be buried.
  • Make sure feeders have no sharp points that might cut birds, to help prevent germs from entering healthy birds.
  • Wash feeders in warm soapy water, then immerse each clean feeder in a disinfectant solution of one part chlorine bleach in nine parts of hot water; rinse well and air dry. Do this monthly, or weekly if birds appear sick.
  • Change the location of feeders regularly.
  • Never use food that is musty smelling, wet, or moldy. Disinfect containers and scoops that have come in contact with such food. Buy high-quality bird seed; check current bird seed to make sure it is not among the lots (noted below) that have been recalled.
  • Keep mice out of stored bird seed.

People handling contaminated bird seed can become infected with salmonellosis, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after contact with products or surfaces potentially exposed to salmonella.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey, is monitoring the presence and spread of the current salmonellosis outbreak. Citizens are encouraged to report significant die-offs of small songbirds (more than 5-10 birds) with the location and their name to Justin Folks so that Game and Inland Fisheries can track the outbreak.

Parkhurst explains that although the Burkmann Feeds company has recalled Lot Number/Manufacturing Code 81132200 2916 08124 of bird seed called Wild Birds Unlimited and Wildlife Blend (20 lb. packages) that contained the salmonella bacteria in the peanut butter meal, the National Wildlife Health Center has not found a link between the current bird deaths and bird feed that contained peanut butter possibly contaminated with salmonella.

Even though the Scotts Company LLC has not received any reports of illness involving its products, it voluntarily recalled five products with December and January dates after learning these products may contain peanut meal purchased from the Peanut Corporation of America’s plant in Blakely, Ga., where there was widespread contamination of salmonella. The Scotts Company is no longer using any products from the Blakely facility.

Parkhurst points out that researchers do not know why salmonellosis cycles in birds, but so far researchers have not found any direct connections with the human outbreak of recent months.