Feeders and baths sicken songbirds (Point Reyes Light, 12.18.2008)

Patient 4650

Songbirds throughout Marin County are dying from salmonella spread primarily through feeders and baths where they cluster.

Salmonellosis is a common cause of death in wild birds, and it is passed through saliva and feces. A bird with salmonella poisoning usually appears lethargic, puffed up and may have swollen eyelids. It may also be found resting with its bill tucked under its wing and will usually be the last bird to take flight when a flock is startled.

“The problem is, it’s very hard to treat them once they have it. Songbirds have such a high metabolism that infection just runs through them faster than you can do anything about,” said Paulette Smith-Ruiz, assistant director of animal care for WildCare, a wildlife rehabilitation hospital in San Rafael. “People think of salmonella as a gastrointestinal problem, like if you eat a bad egg or chicken. But little birds get it all over their bodies.”

Patient number 4650 is the sixteenth Salmonellosis patient at WildCare. He is an adult male pine siskin with yellow patches and olive green and black streaks. He was found in Mill Valley last Monday, and when he was brought into WildCare the next day, he was breathing heavily and the feathers around his face were ratty. He wasn’t flying, but he had no fractures or wounds. He was given anti-inflammatory medication for his swollen elbow, and he has lived in Incubator 4 ever since. He weighs 11 grams.

“He’s almost as small as the germ,” Smith-Ruiz said.

The disease invades birds’ respiratory systems, joints and all their internal organs. To give a small pine siskin the antibiotic Gentamicin, they need to use a nebulizer—which turns the liquid medication into a fine mist for the pine siskin to inhale.

A combination of 4.5 cc of sterile water and 0.50 cc of Gentamicin is placed into a small cup at the end of a tube. A machine is turned on that sends warmed air through the tube, vaporizing the medication before it becomes a mist. The mist is sprayed into the incubator where Patient 4650 is eating seeds and berries from a crème brulee ramekin.

“It’s like Viks in a vaporizer when you’re a kid,” Smith-Ruiz said. Patient 4650 breathes it in for at least 30 minutes. He hops, arduously, behind the pyracantha—or firethorn—branch with its red berries.

“It just needs to work its course through his body. Only a couple of them make it,” Smith-Ruiz said. “Any bird can get it, but pine siskins and gold finches seem most susceptible.

Salmonella isn’t seen as much in solitary birds who don’t crowd around feeders or in crows and gulls who are exposed to garbage and have built up immunity. “But the little seed eaters aren’t eating eggs or anything like that naturally, so if it hits their body, they have no immunity,” Smith-Ruiz said.

A reason why so many pine siskins are affected might be because they are eruptive breeders.

“They’ll have a big population explosion every few years,” said Jan Armstrong, communications manager for WildCare. “They don’t usually show up in this kind of number every year.”

Pine siskins are coastal migrators, and Marin County is located on a flyway. They stop along to rest and rehydrate themselves. “They see the feeders and the baths and think those are great places to eat and bathe,” Armstrong said.

“WildCare discourages feeding wildlife—it spreads disease, causes aggression and population aggregation when they should be spread out,” added Alison Hermance, webmaster for WildCare. “We recommend having native plants instead. But if people are going to have feeders, they need to be responsible and keep them clean.”

Intelligent Feeding Guidelines are endorsed by WildCare, Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bird feeders for seeds should be disinfected every two weeks by immersing them in bleach solution, nine parts water and one part bleach. Bird baths should be emptied out daily, scrubbed with bleach solution and dried before being refilled. People should wash their hands thoroughly afterwards, since humans and cats can contract salmonella. If sick or dead birds are found, immediately remove bird feeders and baths, disinfect and rehang them after at least one month.

“It’s not a kindness to put food out. Now the kindness is to take it away, at least for a while,” Armstrong said. “Nobody wants to serve bad eats over the holiday season.”

Seeds on the ground are a source on contamination as well, especially because fecal matter falls to the ground, according to Frances Weigel, a supervisor at WildCare.

Elaine Straub has found eight dead pine siskins by her home in Sea Haven near Inverness. “I don’t want to continue spreading it,” Straub said.

“A lot of us have bird baths and feeders,” said Barbara Meral, who also lives in Sea Haven. “My bird bath had mold and moss, but now I’m really conscious about cleaning it.”

WildCare treats 4,000 animals a year, from more than 200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. “If you find a sick bird, bring them in a warm, dark and quiet container,” said Smith-Ruiz.

“They’re not pets. They’re wild and terrified, apart from being sick,” added Armstrong. Once they are physically able to survive again, they are released back where they are found.

Patient 4650 is currently receiving the antibiotic TMS three times a day and Gentamicin through the nebulizer once a day, in addition to anti-inflammatory medication. But as of Tuesday night, the last entry in his patient record reads, “Disease is spreading.”

Visit http://www.wildcarebayarea.org for more information about Intelligent Feeding Guidelines or how to volunteer. If you have any questions, call the WildCare’s Living with Wildlife hotline at 415-456-SAVE.

~ by Janet Fang on December 22, 2008.

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