Salmonella outbreak in finches prompts warning

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(Host) Reports of sick and dying birds at feeders have prompted wildlife experts to recommend special care around home feeding stations.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports that this year’s mild, relatively snowless winter may have been a factor in an outbreak of salmonella in finches.

(Keese) Common redpolls are a brownish bird, smaller than a sparrow with a bright red cap. They tend to visit feeders en masse, in a little frenzy of activity.

It’s pretty noticeable when they’re acting out of character.

Alison Stark is Director of Wildlife Services at VINS, the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences in Quechee.

(Stark) “We’ve been getting a lot of calls from the public regarding sick or dead redpolls at their feeders. The birds that were alive at the feeders were very lethargic and puffed up, breathing heavily.”

(Keese) Stark says the calls have been from all over Vermont and parts of New Hampshire. Most of the redpolls taken in by VINS have died and been sent on to a lab for testing.

(Stark) “We suspected salmonella at the beginning just because of the symptoms. The ones that we sent in for testing did test positive for a very high level of salmonella bacteria.”

(Keese) (Keese) Stark says salmonella is present in many wild animals. It’s only when it reaches a high level that the birds get sick and die. She says flocking birds like redpolls, goldfinches and pine siskins are the most susceptible

(Stark) “Based on their proximity to each other they’re just spreading the disease very rapidly when they congregate at feeders. So when people call us we usually tell them to take their feeders down and bleach them to disinfect them with a ten percent bleach solution, and then to leave them down for a few weeks to get those birds to disperse so that they’re not flocking together and spreading the illness faster.”

(Keese) Biologists at VINS say such outbreaks are not that uncommon. Stark thinks the lack of a protracted cold spell this winter may have created conditions more favorable to bacterial growth.

The absence of snow cover also leaves spilled seeds exposed underneath feeders. Birds congregate beneath the feeders too where the disease can spread.

An epidemiologist with the State Health Department says there haven’t been any human cases documented as coming from songbirds in Vermont. But people should wash their hands well after handling feeders or dead birds.

The experts at VINS recommend regular cleaning of feeders and spilled seeds, preferably outside and with rubber gloves.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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