Central Texas is a major flyway for migratory birds. Many of them return north from their winter homes in Central and South America this time of year, with many locals enjoying the event.
“I have been feeding my backyard birds for quite a few years,” said Killeen resident Alison Whyte Frank. “I put specific seed out to draw certain birds, mostly songbirds. They provide lots of enjoyment to us through their song and watching their behavior.”
While migratory birds make this trip annually, this year’s stopover in Texas is more hazardous than usual due to an aggressive salmonella outbreak.
According to information from the Travis Audubon Society, the outbreak began among pine siskins — seed-eating birds that range across nearly all of North America.
The Travis Audubon Society, located in Austin, promotes the enjoyment, understanding and conservation of native birds and their habitats.
To protect birds and prevent the outbreak from spreading, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists asked locals to take down their bird feeders and stop feeding wild birds, including but not limited to finches and siskins.
Although salmonella bacteria occur naturally, they can also spread through bird feeders. An infected bird can spread salmonella to others visiting the feeder, creating a kind of “superspreader” event.
While salmonella directly affects songbirds, it can also transfer to predators such as hawks and owls. Since salmonella is transmitted through saliva, the disease can also infect baby birds that their parents feed.
According to the Travis Audubon Society, the first sign of an infection can be a seemingly tame bird on or near a feeder. Birds infected with salmonella become very lethargic, fluff out their feathers and are easy to approach. However, some birds don’t show any symptoms at all.
If you notice a sick bird, it’s best to leave it alone and report it to your local parks and wildlife department. Most birds that show symptoms die in one to three days.
If you do interact with birds that may be sick, experts from the Travis Audubon Society suggest to ensure to thoroughly wash your hands with an anti-bacterial soap.
“In the past, when I have noticed an unhealthy bird at the feeder, I take down the feeders for at least three weeks,” Whyte Frank said. “I thoroughly clean them and then put them back out.”
While it’s advised to stop feeding with seed or suet feeders that can harbor salmonella, bacteria and mold, as well as feces from sick songbirds, bird enthusiasts can scatter seeds around the yard. This way, birds can do a natural hunt and peck.
Whyte Frank is already looking forward to being able to feed her backyard visitors again.
“I’ve not been able to feed our backyard birds for about a month, but I normally like to feed them every other day,” she said.
Although salmonella does not affect hummingbirds, other diseases do. Because infected birds can land and sit on hummingbird feeders, regular and throughout cleaning of the equipment is necessary to prevent infection.
Because of the constant risk of infection with any bird disease, it’s essential to keep an eye out for anything unusual.
“A while back, I noticed some of our house finches had something going on with their eyes,” Whyte Frank said. “I looked it up and found some info about mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, and it could also infect other birds. According to the instructions I found, I took down the feeders to encourage the sick birds to disperse. While the feeders are down, I cleaned them really good according to the instructions provided.”