Backyard feeders posing risk to Sonoma County songbirds

Andrienne Faulkner loves feeding birds.

The 69-year-old Montgomery Village area resident spends about $700 a year on birdseed for the various feeders in the yard.

So when she spotted two dead songbirds in her yard last week - a finch near a garbage can and a pine siskin on her patio - she first thought West Nile virus might be to blame.

She made some inquiries, and was surprised to learn that it wasn’t West Nile that was killing the birds - it was her.

Well, not exactly. The direct cause is likely a salmonella outbreak sweeping through several Bay Area counties.

But by providing birds a place to eat and congregate, Faulkner and other backyard birders may be unwittingly helping spread avian diseases, like the salmonella outbreak now spreading through finch populations in the region.

“I want to feed them, but I don’t want to kill them,” said Faulkner, who said she plans to remove her feeders and clean them as recommended.

The outbreak started about a month ago with a sharp increase in the number of people reporting dead or lethargic songbirds, said Veronica Bowers, founder and director of Native Songbird Care & Conservation in Sebastopol, a rescue center focused on songbirds.

One of the birds taken to her center has since tested positive for salmonella, she said. State Department of Fish and Wildlife officials have alerted her and other rescue centers of outbreaks in Sonoma, Sacramento, Alameda and other Bay Area counties, she said.

There was a similar outbreak three years ago and a severe one in 2008, but it’s too soon to say how deadly this one will be, she said.

“We really only started to see and respond to calls over the last month, so the worst may be yet to come,” Bowers said.

The pine siskin is a little brown and yellow striped nomadic finch named for its affinity for the seeds of conifer trees. For some reason it is particularly susceptible to the salmonella bacteria. When pine siskins flock to an area, they invariably spread the disease through infected fecal matter to other finch species, such as gold finches, Bowers said.

When high concentrations of birds gather to feed in backyard food sources, the exposure rate increases, especially if the feeders aren’t regularly cleaned, she said.

“Feeding birds is a very enjoyable hobby for millions of people in our country, but it does put our songbirds at risk,” Bowers said.

Infected birds often appear lethargic, closing their eyes and puffing out their feathers. Often by the time people are able to approach them to get them help, they are too far gone to save, Bowers said. Still she encourages anyone who spots signs of distress to bring the birds to her center, where she says they may have a 50/50 chance of survival.

Bird advocates recommend people take down their feeders and birdbaths for a month to give the disease the chance to run its course without spreading any further. They should also clean them with a 9-to-1 water-bleach solution before placing them back out in their yards. The birds will find sufficient food sources in nature, Bowers said.

The outbreak has been a source of heartbreak for many customers at Wild Birds Unlimited, said owner Tim Stewart.

“I’m hearing about it on a daily basis from customers,” Stewart said.

It seems like every few years when the pine siskins invade in large numbers, the mortality rates of other finches rise shortly thereafter.

“Every time I see a flock of pine siskins show up, I just kind of cringe,” Stewart said.

He hasn’t seen any dead or dying birds in his yard yet, but if he does he’ll certainly take his feeders down and clean them as recommended.

“I like feeding birds and I like selling birdseed, but I’m not in the business to kill them,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette