American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins / Betsy Bass / Great Backyard Bird Count

This article was updated March 26, in response to latest guidance from WDFW.

Update (March 26 & April 4)

  • Slowly reintroduce feeders around April 1, with caution.
    • Consider reducing the number of feeders offered.
    • Consider feeders that accommodate fewer birds, e.g. tube feeders.
    • Limit the amount of food offered, e.g. one or two days’ supply.
    • Wear gloves or wash hands thoroughy with soap and water for handling feeders or bird baths. 
    • April 4: The CDC is reporting six cases of salmonellosis in people in Washington, linked to contact with wild birds. Read more here.
  • Wear gloves when disposing of dead birds and wash hands afterwards. 
  • Report sick or dead birds to WDFW.

We will update this post as more information from WDFW becomes available. Read Seattle Audubon’s complete Salmonellosis resource page for additional background and details.

Background

Many people around the country have discovered or rekindled a love of backyard birdwatching during the pandemic. If you, like us, are among them, you might have noticed an especially large number of Pine Siskins visiting your neighborhood this fall and winter. This phenomenon is what’s known as an ‘irruption,’ a dramatic increase in the population of a species outside their normal range. In fact, according to the National Audubon Society, this irruption is one of the largest ever recorded and is likely caused by a low supply of conifer seeds in the boreal forest of Canada.

While this irruption has been entertaining to witness, some apparent consequences have unfortunately emerged. Seattle Audubon has been receiving many calls and reports of birds that are very easily approachable in local backyards and parks. These birds may simply appear “tame,” but the truth is more disheartening.

The wildlife rehabilitation team at Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) has reported a significant number of Pine Siskins being admitted to their hospital suffering from salmonellosis. This disease is caused by an infection of the bacteria salmonella. Transmission occurs through contact with the feces and saliva of infected birds, and is not unique to Pine Siskins, though they appear to be the most significantly affected at this time. In addition to being easy to approach, sick birds become lethargic, hold their feathers away from their body and appear “puffed up.”

Recommendations

In response, Seattle Audubon urges our members and the public to follow the recent recommendations issued by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Agency experts are currently recommending to temporarily remove bird feeding stations. This includes feeders of all types, not just seed feeders. Hummingbird feeders and suet feeders, not typically used by siskins and other finches for feeding, have been reported to serve as perches for sick birds, which can spread the disease to other species. WDFW is expected to provide guidance on the timing for a return to normal, but current recommendations are in effect until at least April 1.

If you wish to continue feeding birds, feeders and birdbaths should be cleaned daily with warm, soapy water and disinfected with a 10% bleach solution. After cleaning and disinfecting, feeders should be rinsed and allowed to dry completely before the next use.

Seattle Audubon also repeats its perennial call for community members to keep cats indoors. This is always the safest course for both cats, birds, and other wildlife, but especially now. Domestic cats are also susceptible to salmonella infection from contact with sick birds, which will be easy prey. Dog owners should also pay special attention to their canine companions at this time.

If you see a sick or dead bird, you should report it to WDFW. Unfortunately, there is little that wildlife rehabilitators can do to help these birds and the disease is almost always fatal. If you must dispose of a dead bird, wear gloves and dispose of the body in the trash, bagged in plastic—wash your hands immediately afterwards.