The Flying Shingle
Just for the Birds
Sick siskins and other sad stories
by Sharon McInnes
Monday, June 3, 2013

If you feed the birds, you’re bound to see a sick one at your feeder or a dead one under your window at some point. Birds die for a myriad of reasons including old age, accident, and disease.
Hummingbirds, for example, can acquire a deadly fungal infection. Hummingbird tongue fungal infection causes the tongue to swell, making it impossible for the bird to eat. You might see the hummer sitting at a feeder with its swollen tongue just hanging out of its mouth. Eventually it dies of starvation. Since sugar-water is conducive to the growth of pathogens, the only remedy is a preventative one: CLEAN feeders. Be sure to use only white sugar (never honey) when you make up your sugar-water solution (one part sugar to four parts water, boiled) and please avoid the red-dyed commercial preparation! 
To clean your hummingbird feeder, empty and thoroughly wash the whole thing in hot water using a bottle brush to scrub the interior glass. Clean all removable parts with a toothbrush and/or Q-tip. Make sure every speck of foreign material is removed and it’s clean enough for YOU to drink from. As a maintenance routine, I recommend the 1-2-3 rule. In the hot summer, clean once a day. In spring-like weather clean every two days. In the winter clean every three days. If your life is too busy and this cleaning regimen is too onerous, you can still enjoy hummingbirds by planting fuschia and flowering currant and many other kinds of brightly-coloured native plants in your garden. If you plant it, they will come!
Speaking of sick birds, again this year I’ve had several calls from islanders about fluffy, docile little birds perfectly content to just sit at their feeders all day long, guzzling seed. They don’t even bother to fly away when a human gets very close. Unfortunately, these little Pine Siskins that seem so tame are actually suffering from salmonella, which is shed in bird droppings then ingested. Pine Siskins are particularly susceptible to salmonella, especially during irruption years (such as 2012 and 2013), partly because they are highly social, travelling in huge flocks, and eating together.
Some people believe these bacterial outbreaks are nature’s way of correcting the population imbalance. “While it is upsetting to see ill birds at your feeders, it is nature’s way of correcting over-populations and is a natural process.” (Surrey Wild Birds Unlimited website.)
Salmonella also occurs in other finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Also, cats that kill and eat songbirds can become sick, as can people. Be sure to wash your hands THOROUGHLY after handling a sick or dead bird or cleaning your feeders, since salmonella is the bacteria associated with food poisoning in humans.
If you’re seeing sick siskins in your yard, you might consider taking down your feeders for a while until the birds leave the area. If not, please be hyper-vigilant about keeping them and the area underneath them SQUEAKY CLEAN.
Plastic or metal feeders are easier to keep clean than wooden ones. Clean them every week in a solution of 10 per cent bleach or white vinegar and 90 per cent clean water, then rinse thoroughly and allow to dry naturally before re-hanging.
Also, rake under the feeders every day and put the old seed and droppings in a bag in the garbage – not in recycling. You can spread the feeders out to discourage crowding.
Birdbaths can also carry the salmonella bacteria, so be sure to change the water every few days to get rid of regurgitated seeds and faeces. Scrub them every week with a plastic brush to remove algae and bacteria, then rinse well. Make sure you allow the brush to dry thoroughly following each use. And, by the way, never ever add chemicals to a birdbath.
Since salmonella bacteria can live for months on unclean feeders and on the ground, and can also be brought into the backyard from the wild, it’s very hard to eradicate once it hits. Some wildlife rehabilitation workers report that it’s almost impossible to save a Pine Siskin once it’s infected. At that point all you can do is try to stop it from spreading. So let’s all do that.

Sharon is the author of “Up Close & Personal: Confessions of a Backyard Birder”. She also writes the Gabriola Bird Blog and is a guest blogger on on the 28th of each month.

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