Yesterday, Circling the News wrote in Musings:
“After hearing Julie Hansen, owner of the Santa Monica Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop, speak at a Palisades Rotary meeting, my husband and I hung two bird feeders, complete with plastic curved roofs, so that rats and squirrels couldn’t access the food.
“Boy, can those finches eat. On Tuesday, I stopped by Hansen’s store (12433 Wilshire Blvd.) to pick up another 20-pound bag of bird seed, but she was out, so I purchased the ‘big bag.’ Initially, I left it on the patio, but the French bulldog tried to bite it open (he loves bird seed), so I moved it to the picnic table. This morning, a squirrel was also trying to get it open, finally convincing me that I needed to hide the bag in our seed bin.”
A reader responded in a morning email: “I have read that wildlife experts are urging people in western states to not put out bird feeders because of an outbreak of salmonella, especially among finches. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket.”
I contacted the bird shop and spoke with Hansen about an April 15 article in the L.A. Times (“Your Bird Feeder Is Cancelled. Attract Birds with These 13 Native Plants Instead”). The story begins: “Attention wildlife fans: Bird feeders are killing songbirds, due to a vicious salmonellosis outbreak this winter. Wildlife officials in multiple Western states issued warnings earlier this year that so many birds are dying, the safest plan is to take down all our feeders, at least for now, so birds will stop congregating and spreading the disease.”
The story urged Los Angeles residents to grow native plants and cultivate food for the birds in backyards, rather than use a birdfeeder.
Hansen said the birds spreading the disease are Pine Siskins and are migratory and this year was an irruption year. (With birds, irruption means the movement of northern-wintering species to the south in years of low-food availability.)
According to the Cornell Lab’s “All About Birds,” “[Pine Siskins] can be abundant one winter and gone the next,” and Wikipedia notes that “migration by this bird is highly variable, probably related to food supply.”
In March, a Smithsonian magazine article (“Songbirds Are Spreading a Deadly Disease at Birdfeeders: Pine Siskins, a Type of Finch, Can Spread Salmonella Bacteria When They Poop on the High-Traffic Platforms”), noted that salmonella outbreaks occur every winter and this year there were reported outbreaks in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah.
The L.A. Times article is about four to six weeks late, because the Pine Siskins have now migrated north. (According to some reports, they did make it to Southern California.)
Additionally, it would be impossible to feed birds with a native garden if one is starting it now because it takes time for the plants time to grow, to flower and for seeds to develop. There also has to be a cultivation of insects, which provide additional food.
Hansen said that planting a bird-friendly garden is a “win-win” solution, given that there’s not always enough habitat to provide food for various birds. And that’s why bird feeders are important.
“Audubon says that feeders are fine, not only for the supplemental feedings, but also a way of connecting people to nature,” Hansen said.
In a talk at a recent Rotary Club meeting, Hansen said: “According to the Journal of Science, we have lost 3 billion birds since 1990 because of loss of habitat. Backyards become critical habitats. Yards provide little stopover places.”
Hansen said that if you had Pine Siskins this year at your feeders, that you could clean it with soap and water or a diluted bleach solution.
The kind of feeder one has makes a difference, too. If you have a tray feeder, the birds tend to congregate, and the poop (how the salmonella spreads) can be in the tray.
If you have a seed-tube feeder, the birds are eating one at a time. “You could also put out suet, which is beneficial to birds,” Hansen said, noting that if you do see a sick bird, take the feeders down until the flock disperses.
One of the most important ways of keeping birds alive, “make sure there are not cats in your yard,” Hansen said.