WEST SEATTLE BIRDS: Have a feeder? Wildlife advocates want you to take it down temporarily to save lives

That’s a Pine Siskin, photographed in West Seattle by Mark Wangerin in December 2019. At the time, he told WSB that they seemed to be showing up in larger numbers. That’s happening again this year, and it’s led to a health problem that has at least one wildlife-advocacy organization suggesting you temporarily take down your feeder(s) to save birds’ lives. Geoff M. emailed us to point out this alert on the PAWS website, which says in part:

We are currently witnessing one of the biggest reported irruption years of Pine Siskins in the United States. Irruptions are sudden, dramatic increases in the abundance of an animal, in this case caused by conifer cone shortages in northern North America. The large flocks we are seeing all over western Washington are incredible to witness. However, this event has caused pine siskins to gather in even larger numbers around bird feeders, which can increase the spread of Salmonella, a potentially fatal bacterium. PAWS has admitted 68 Pine Siskins in the last 60 days and the admissions staff are fielding multiple calls daily about sick siskins.

Usually, we recommend removing feeders for a few weeks when a sick bird is found nearby and cleaning the area thoroughly. However, the flocks are so large and cases so frequent right now, we recommend removing your feeders even before you detect a sick bird until the irruptive migrants move on. Learn more about how to combat salmonellosis here and check out our website for general recommendations about bird health in your yard.

Geoff says, “This is affecting West Seattle, and in the past few days we’ve noticed a few dozen sick and four dead siskins and have since taken down our feeders for the time being.”

39 Replies to "WEST SEATTLE BIRDS: Have a feeder? Wildlife advocates want you to take it down temporarily to save lives"

  • Peter S. January 10, 2021 (12:21 pm)

    Wow.  That’s unfortunate.  This is the time of year when we’re normally encouraged to make sure our feeders stay well-stocked.   I presume this does not apply to hummingbird feeders. Will be taking mine down today.  Have not observed one of the offending interlopers, even though I’ve had a steady stream of songbird, jay, etc. customers.  And, I just got it set up in a way that I’m not also feeding the neighborhood squirrels .   More proof that my hope for a saner 2021 was short lived :(   

  • Blbl January 10, 2021 (12:48 pm)

    I spent all morning online reading about this today because I was curious about all the new birds at my feeder. I haven’t seen any sick or dead birds, so I thought extra cleaning would be enough. But now I’ll take down my feeder for awhile. Thanks! 

    • Shirley Bean January 11, 2021 (4:34 am)

      I live in lndiana..does this apply to my bird feeders ??????

  • RT January 10, 2021 (1:28 pm)

    Thank you so much for this alert and for the links. I’ve noticed the huge increase in pine siskins at my feeders the past few months. Have now taken the feeders down and am disinfecting them as well as mitigating the areas below where they were hung.   I have a couple of small feeders with feed that has not been appealing to the siskins, but for now, have removed these as  well. I’ll miss my feathered  friends, who have been my only companions during covid lock down, but their health and survival is critical.   A good incentive for me to take binoculars along on my daily walks and catch them in the wild. 

  • Kelly Murphy-Stevens January 10, 2021 (2:40 pm)

    Haller Lake.  North Seattle.  Same thing.  Dead birds. Take your bird feeders down. Wear gloves and a mask and clean them. Do not put them up until the Pine Siskin birds have migrated past Seattle. They are dying in large numbers. One was dead just now at my garage door and I can see some are frail and not flying away from my feeder.

  • Sharon Howard January 10, 2021 (2:51 pm)

    FYI–This is a posting from Tweeters News Group at UW on January 5 from a vet on Whidbey Island:Hello Tweeters,
    As a veterinarian who treats wildlife, I would like to weigh into the
    conversation concerning Salmonellosis in sick and dying Siskins and otherfinches. I have done more than my share of attempting to treat (alwaysfutile) and euthanization of these sick birds.
    Important fact – Salmonella is a natural and normal inhabitant of thegastrointestinal tracts of almost all birds, reptiles and amphibians. These
    bacteria do little or no harm to a healthy individual and perhaps may be
    beneficial. As an aside, better cook that chicken or turkey very well!During commercial poultry processing, it is almost impossible to avoid somefecal contamination of the meat.

    Do feeders play an important role in the transmission of Salmonellosis?There are so many variables it is difficult to sort them all out. Why is itthe case that some individuals who rarely clean their feeders report nocases of sick finches while others who clean and bleach their feeders everyday report many cases? Why are these cases seen mostly in winter? Whyfinches and not chickadees, nuthatches or woodpeckers? Does the finches’habit of staying at a feeder for long periods contribute? Are finches moresusceptible to Salmonella? Are feeders really the source of overwhelmingSalmonella infections? Do sick Siskins get sick elsewhere and then gravitateto feeders because of the easy food supply?
    Winter is a tough time for all wildlife, especially the very young who

    haven’t quite figured out how to make a living and the very old. A missed
    meal during cold wet weather could mean a downward spiral. It is impossibleto identify a mildly sick bird because prey animals hide any sign ofweakness until they can’t anymore. Those fluffed birds camped out at yourfeeder are dying and likely cannot be helped.
    Since every bird already harbors Salmonella bacteria, it is my opinion (and
    JUST an opinion!) that the birds that are dying from Salmonellosis almostalways have some preexisting condition that makes them more susceptible tothe disease. They may be malnourished, weak, unable to stay warm, or havesome other concurrent disease. The Salmonella takes over in these situations
    and causes death. Our own bodies contain billions of beneficial E. coli
    bacteria but if these organisms are in the wrong place at the wrong timethey can cause a serious infection.
    So, what about feeders as a cause of dying birds? Maybe, but I believe we

    may save more birds by feeding them especially during the torrential rains
    we are experiencing or when snow covers the ground. Again, this iscontroversial and there appears to be no right or wrong answer. Should wethoroughly clean our feeders? Definitely, fungal and other pathogens as wellas Salmonella, lurk in feeders. The frequency of cleaning is up to you.
    I hope this has been food for thought. Definitely a lot of unanswered
    questions!
    Happy New Year!

    Dave Parent DVM dpdvm@whidbey.com Freeland, WA

    • oakley34 January 10, 2021 (6:42 pm)

      I’d trust PAWS (a wildlife rehabilitation network) over the word of one vet.  Err for caution.  This guy sounds a bit like the Scott Atlas of vets.

      • Althea January 12, 2021 (8:20 am)

        As he clearly stated it was just an opinion amd possibly food for thought. No need to go atlas on him. I appreciated the dif perspective.

      • Brad In Seattle January 16, 2021 (1:01 am)

        Agree with you 100% on the Scott Atlas comparison. WDFW, Audubon, PAWS and more all state very clearly that bird feeders should be removed in order to mitigate birds death. A single vet with an opposing opinion should not be taken at equal weight. Listen to them, please, and don’t play at-home avian science pundit. 

    • LivesInWS January 10, 2021 (6:45 pm)

      Thanks for this detailed info from a veterinarian. Puts things in perspective. 

    • Anita East January 11, 2021 (6:37 am)

      Thoughtful, scientific reasoning.  Thank you for expanding the narrative in a good way. 

    • Sharen March January 11, 2021 (3:37 pm)

      Is this just in Seattle area? Should we be concerned in SF-BAY AREA, Calif.?  Should we take down our feeders?

      • WSB January 11, 2021 (3:57 pm)

        I have seen media coverage from other areas of the country. But your local Audubon Society might be a good source to check with.

      • Souza January 11, 2021 (7:46 pm)

        Yes. I live in Northern California/Bay Area and have seen several sick and dead Pine Siskins today alone. We took down the seed feeders but were instructed by our local bird and wildlife store that we could keep up the suet and seed/fruit cylinders. They said millet is also okay because it’s not something the Siskins eat. We cleaned and emptied both of our birdbath fountains. This is so sad and apparently, these Siskin salmonella outbreaks happen every five years or so. Looks like they’re going through their own epidemic for now. :( Does anyone know why Pine Siskins are spreading salmonella while the other birds are fine? 

  • anonyme January 10, 2021 (3:37 pm)

    A few years ago I was finding dead siskins all over the place.  It was awful.  I even found one dead in the tray of a feeder.  I took down my feeders and haven’t put them back up since.  Even though I kept my feeders clean, the risk of having disease spread from feeder to feeder seemed too great.  I’ve seen very few siskins in the last few years since that big dieoff, but one or two appeared over the last few weeks.  I figure I’d rather be safe than sorry, as wild birds face enough threats as it is – including the neighbor’s multiple cats who stalk my yard.  What I’d really like to know is why is it siskins that are most vulnerable?  I haven’t seen dead birds of any other species.

  • Lisa in Arbor Heights January 10, 2021 (6:41 pm)

    Oh my goodness, thank you for letting us know. We’ll take our feeders down first thing in the morning….with gloves. 

  • Kersti Muul January 10, 2021 (7:03 pm)

    Photos taken today.. Also, friends cat just recovering from songbird fever from eating a bird that was sick. It almost died and the vet bill was almost $5000 It impacts more than birds.

  • Jeff Sweet January 10, 2021 (11:04 pm)

    Here’s another story from Bay Nature with input from the Audubon society. My local Wild Birds Unlimited advocates leaving feeders up for the birds that needs it. Their opinion is that taking them down does nothing but move the problem elsewhere. I’m cleaning feeders and taking the catch trays down so they can’t sure around as easily. Here’s the story: https://baynature.org/2013/04/30/pine-siskins-surge-means-dead-birds-but-also-new-neighbors/?fbclid=IwAR1P8BxJj1VPIkm8aYbrU3qSUFXxEgUjKy-GYCFUf3aOxHIRD5I-sA-ph7A

  • Suzanne Krom January 11, 2021 (3:09 am)

    Bird behaviorist here — PAWS is the authority in this case (not the vet). It’s far safer for the pine siskins to disperse throughout the region to forage for food instead of congregating at feeders. Feeders are often the source for the spread of disease. Pine siskin’s diet is varied and widely available. This is from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds — “While they favor feeding in open forest canopies where cone seeds are abundant, they’ll forage in habitats as diverse as deciduous forests and thickets, meadows, grasslands, weedy fields, roadsides, chaparral, and backyard gardens and lawns.”  

  • Suzanne Krom January 11, 2021 (5:39 am)

    This is from Seattle Audubon — “

    At the first sign or notification of salmonellosis, Seattle Audubon recommends taking down all seed feeders to prevent the spread of the disease.

    All species of birds are susceptible to salmonella infection. Occasionally, outbreaks of the disease can cause significant mortality in certain species including Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll and American Goldfinch. Most commonly, the first appearance of this disease is seen in Pine Siskins. Feeder cleanliness is key to healthy bird environments. Seattle Audubon recommends routinely cleaning your feeders even when there is no sign of disease. Feeders should be disinfected at least once or twice a month, but weekly is even better. Prevent overcrowding by adding more feeders or setting up different types of feeders that allow only a few birds to visit at one time. Click to view or download The Nature Shop’s Backyard Bird Feeding brochure which includes feeder cleaning instructions.

    https://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/Learn/SeasonalFacts/BirdDiseases/Salmonellosis.aspx#:~:text=All%20species%20of%20birds%20are,is%20seen%20in%20Pine%20Siskins.

    • Tom Goodwin January 19, 2021 (3:47 pm)

      Now I know why so many pine siskins have been sluggish on my feeder and deck.  One thing I am curious about: they seem bloated.  Is that from overeating or an effect of the infection?

  • Shanta Kamath January 11, 2021 (6:11 am)

    Instead of feeders, we have a yard with plants that have berries, seeds, pinecones and grasses that we allow to stay available through the winter. The ground is rich with worms and insects because we don’t poison them. This is how nature feeds birds and we just don’t get in the way but try to provide a good menu of plants. The only feeder I have is for hummingbirds and I keep it up because the resident before us started it and I’m afraid they would die without it. I don’t want to betray their trust. 

  • Bill Jaback January 11, 2021 (8:00 am)

    Does this apply to suet feeders as well?

    • D January 12, 2021 (11:58 am)

      I was wondering that as well. The main source of contamination spreading is through fecal matter.  

    • brizone January 17, 2021 (5:17 pm)

      Specifically does *not* apply to suet feeders.

  • JORT January 11, 2021 (10:51 am)

    You know who else loves bird feeders? RATS. 

    • arabianrhino January 11, 2021 (4:31 pm)

      After watching rats camp out under bird feeders a couple of years ago, I haven’t had a bird seed feeder in my yard since. Rats still come around periodically but aren’t camped in the back lawn in the middle of the day not giving a care in the world.

    • Peter S. January 11, 2021 (8:03 pm)

      I very rarely agree with Jort, but in this case he/she is right.  Birds often discard the seeds they find less tasty if there is an abundance to pick from.  Rats aren’t quite as fussy :(   

      • Kari D January 11, 2021 (10:39 pm)

        We had rats cleaning up seed under our feeder too till they attracted the attention of a Coopers hawk. Haven’t seen rats since. 

  • JCW January 11, 2021 (11:14 am)

    Yikes! This is good to know!We’ve been seeing an unusually high number of birds flying into our windows. We even have stickers or paper up where it keeps occurring, but there seems to be 1-2 every day. Is that a sign that the birds are unwell? They seem to be bumping into it, not flying at a high speed.We have feeders that we’ll be taking down today, but our backyard is also quite lush with leaf cover and lots of noms for wildlife to eat.

  • Emery Eckert January 11, 2021 (2:37 pm)

    Emery  Eckert Issaquah WashingtonI have had an occasional sighting of pine siskins on my bird feeders. I have not observed any sick or dying siskins.  I have removed all feeders that have collection trays at the bottom: the lawn under the feeders gets mowed once a week.  I noticed  in the replies to your article no one mentioned bird baths. My bird bath gets frequent use even in winter months. I notice bird droppings in the water and realize the birds use this water for bathing, drinking and defecating.  Could this be one source of the contamination?  Emery Eckert eebj@broadstripe.net    

    • Souza January 11, 2021 (7:53 pm)

      Hi Emery. Yeah the bird baths are also a place of contamination. We cleaned and emptied both of our bird baths today in addition to taking down seed feeders (but not suet and seed/fruit cylinders). 

  • Jeff WestSeattle January 11, 2021 (3:31 pm)

    WDFW just released this information on Salmonellosis in song birds.https://wdfw.wa.gov/news/help-protect-wild-birds-deadly-salmonellosis

  • WatchtheBirdies January 11, 2021 (5:02 pm)

    WSB, I really appreciate this information.  I have found 5 dead birds (now I know they are called pine siskins) around a 10′ radius by my garage.  What caught my eye was that 4 of them died in the upright  position, not laying down.  I don’t have bird feeders, however, several of my neighbors have them hanging in their yards.  

  • Suzanne Krom January 11, 2021 (5:03 pm)

    Emery E. To answer your question, droppings are a major source of contamination, so yes, you’ll want to drain your bird bath and block access to the water.  Before doing that, I strongly recommend creating a 10% bleach solution to disinfect it (10%-ish is fine).  Cover it with something that keeps birds, insects, and others from access the bleach solution, such as a garbage can lid. Let it soak for 2+ hours. Then rinse thoroughly and cover to keep birds away until we know  that the Salmonella outbreak has thoroughly run its course.  Suzanne

  • jp schwa January 12, 2021 (5:06 am)

    would it be possible to put antibiotics in the water for them to drink? or would that just kill too many beneficial bacteria at the same time? bacterial illness is a war of numbers. probiotics add higher numbers of the other  strains and compete  with the salmonella, so could we add probiotics to the water? or spray it over the feed??????

  • deborah M January 13, 2021 (7:27 pm)

    I live in Eugene Oregon. A couple of weeks ago, I first noticed some slow moving birds, and I could actually reach out and take on off my feeder should I have wanted. We then saw another bird, all puffed up and flying slowly and landing very close to us. My new collie, a 7 month old pup has had 3 of these birds in her mouth. I couldn’t imagine how she could catch a bird, until I looked it up and like many of you, called the local Wild Life Unlimited where I buy my bird seed and supplies. They said the pup probably found the dead birds. They explained that I needed to take down the feeders, and bleach them and not put them back for 10 days. I am not sure I should put them out now. I also called my vet, and they said it is difficult to cross contaminate bird salmonella with a dog. So I was happy about that information. I do miss the different species of birds that came to visit seasonally, but want to do the right thing. It was very sad to see these suffering little things and find out we bird feeding folks are part of the problem  

  • Suzanne Krom January 14, 2021 (6:14 am)

    jp schwa No, do not treat with antibiotics on the feeder or by administering. This is a fatal disease even with skilled care by qualified avian vets. Never attempt to treat through indiscriminate use of antibiotics. Short term and long term harm will result. 

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