Patient of the Week: Pine Siskins and Salmonella

By Ashley Lema, Wildlife Rehabilitator

Every winter we get reports of Pine Siskins affected by salmonella. Pine Siskins are a flocking bird that frequent feeders during this season. Salmonella is a bacteria that can live in the intestines of people and animals and gets spread via feces. For reasons that are not fully understood, Pine Siskins are particularly susceptible to salmonella. When large numbers of Pine Siskins congregate day after day, particularly during the stressful winter months, salmonella can quickly spread through a local population. It is not uncommon at this time of year to find sick or dead Pine Siskins around feeders.

There are important steps that you can take to protect Pine Siskins, other birds, and your family if you see signs of this illness.

Behaviors that you may notice in affected birds include:  

  • Easy to approach, not moving much.
  • Weak with little or no ability to fly
  • Fluffed feathers, tucking their head, and squinting eyes. Generally looking weak and dull. 
Photo of Pine Siskins by Emily Carter Mitchell

How to Protect Birds at Your Feeders:

It is fine to feed the birds when done appropriately, but there are important steps you can take to minimize the risk of a salmonella outbreak and to minimize the spread of illness:

  • Clean and bleach your feeders regularly. Not just in the winter, but year round. Clean with soap and water, rinse, soak with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 10 parts water, allow to sit for 10 minutes, rinse, and dry before using again. Best practice would be to clean and bleach daily, however if folks can’t manage a daily clean, as often as possible as the next best thing. (PRO-TIP: Have two identical feeders that you can rotate, one inside being cleaned appropriately and the other outside feeding the beloved birds.)
  • Wash all nearby surfaces and rake the ground around the feeder.
  • Use relatively small feeders and only fill the feeders with enough food for the day, don’t overfill and have seed sitting in wet conditions. Try to choose seed mixes with low “fallout” – seed types suitable to the specific birds you’re feeding so not as much seed ends up on the ground. Our Nature Store staff can help with this if you have questions!
  • Platform feeders are particularly problematic because of their design, which allows bird droppings to collect where the birds are also expected to feed. Try to avoid feeders with this type of design.
  • Take down feeders for 2-3 weeks any time you see an ill bird near your feeder. This will cause the flock to disperse. There is plenty of natural food out there for the birds, so removal of feeders will not put them in jeopardy. 


What to Do If You Find an Injured, Ill, or Orphaned Animal

The best thing you can do is contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not offer food or water. Limit contact and wash your hands!

Salmonella and Humans

Salmonella is a zoonotic bacteria, which means that people, pets, and other wildlife can be susceptible. During last year’s outbreak in Pine Siskins, there were about 20 salmonella cases in humans associated with bird feeding along the west coast as well. 

A Pine Siskin that died shortly after arriving at our hospital.

Symptoms in people and pets can range from mild to severe, and though it is treatable with antibiotics and people recover well in most cases, in rare cases, salmonella can be serious or even fatal. The good news is that it is not hard to protect yourself and your pets from contracting this illness!

You can minimize risk to your family and pets by doing the following:

  • Always wash your hands after handling feeders, bird baths, or anything wild birds use!
  • Keep cats safe indoors, and don’t let your pets drink from bird baths or eat the seeds that fall from bird feeders
  • Keep small children from playing under feeders or in bird baths
  • Wash your hands thoroughly anytime you come into contact with bird feeders or other surfaces with bird feces, or anytime you handle wildlife, whether they’re ill Pine Siskins or any other animal.

It is important to note that salmonella outbreaks in Pine Siskins have been documented for many years and that human cases of salmonella related to bird feeding are very rare. There is no reason to panic but there is reason to take common sense precautions. 

Salmonella in the Portland Metro Area

Last winter was particularly hard on Pine Siskins. More than 200 individuals were brought to our Wildlife Care Center alone during the salmonella outbreak. This is only a fraction of the birds that were actually affected, as many of them perished in people’s yards before any action could be taken.

So far this December, we have received several sick Pine Siskin patients from the greater Portland metro area. A few of these birds passed away on the drive to our hospital, and the others died within hours or a day of being admitted. Although we are still waiting on definitive results from the Oregon State University laboratory, all of the birds’ symptoms are consistent with salmonella. It’s still too early to tell if there will be another serious outbreak this year.

Unfortunately Pine Siskins with salmonella have a very low survival rate, especially once the bird is showing symptoms. We do our best to care for the sick animals that are brought in, but the most effective medicine is actively trying to prevent the spread to reduce the number of birds who become sick! With these simple steps, we can continue to enjoy bird feeding while also keeping the birds, our pets and our families safe.