Wild Songbirds Spreading Salmonella Infection

April 8, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck

The CDC has issued a report finding that small, yellow-tinged songbirds from the finch family were linked to 19 infections of salmonella across the U.S.  

Rachel Curtis-Robles, a public health educator and outreach officer for the California Department of Wildlife, advised residents of San Mateo County to “take down your bird feeders and wash hands after being outdoors,” in a written statement

The wild songbirds, known as Pine Siskins, have already led to eight hospitalizations, and 19 salmonella infections in eight states. 

Of the 19 cases reported, six cases occurred in Washington, five cases in Oregon, three in California, and one case reported in each state of Oklahoma, Kentucky, Mississippi, Vermont, and New Hampshire.  

“Salmonellosis is almost exclusively reported from locations with bird feeders where birds congregate,” said the California Department of Wildlife in a written statement.  

This is because sick birds usually flock to bird feeders and baths, gathering in close proximity, which allows the disease to spread quickly.  

The California Department of Wildlife wrote that while it’s uncommon for pets like cats and dogs to become sick with salmonellosis, they can still be carriers of the Salmonella bacteria and spread it to people.

When the CDC interviewed 13 infected individuals, they found that 69% owned a bird feeder, 15% reported contact with a sick or dead wild bird, and 10 people had pets with access to wild birds.   

The first salmonella case was reported on December 27, 2020, and the most recent case was reported on March 16. However, this may not be accurate to the actual timeline of infection, as it can take anywhere between six hours to six days after coming into contact with the bacteria to experience symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting.  

“You can get sick when you touch your mouth with unwashed hands after touching wild birds, bird feeders or bird baths, or your pets that have contact with wild birds,” the CDC wrote in a statement.  

The Centers for Disease Control also recommends that individuals don’t scatter food on the ground for birds, and to keep pets away from bird feeders and dead birds. 

For those who still want to delight in watching wild songbirds in their birdbaths and feeders, a virtual experience of birds and their mating habits is now offered through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s live bird cams

CDC is also encouraging people with bird feeders to regularly clean and disinfect them. People may become ill from touching wild birds or something in its environment, such as a bird feeder or bird bath, and then touching their mouth or face and swallowing Salmonella germs.

Wild songbirds, such as pine siskins, can be found throughout the United States, so this outbreak may not be limited to the states with known illnesses. The true number of sick people in an outbreak is likely much higher than the number reported because many people recover without medical care and are not tested for Salmonella.

In addition, recent illnesses may not yet be reported as it usually takes 2 to 4 weeks to determine if a sick person is part of an outbreak. Pine siskins and other songbirds impacted by this outbreak are distributed across North America including the United States and may migrate seasonally.

Health departments across the United States are aware of the outbreak and conducting routine surveillance which would allow for identification of new illnesses.

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