By Christina VanGinkel
This winter has proved to be a difficult one for some of the natural habitat that visits not only our garden, but many of those in our area. Sadly, I noticed a few small deceased songbirds over the past several weeks beneath and nearby our feeders. As we purposely plant vegetation in the spring, summer, and fall that attracts these birds, then continue to feed them through the winter months, I was obviously concerned. In all the years that we have been enjoying our garden year round, we have had the occasional bird that has flown into a window, and either was injured or died, we even had a stray partridge fly into the outside wall of our house, causing considerable damage to the wall and killing the bird, but we have never had such a magnitude of dead birds. We asked around, and a few other people were experiencing the same sort of demise at their feeders. Instead of making us feel better, that we were not alone, this only served to increase our concern.
Everyone we talked to suddenly had a different opinion, from tainted birdfeed, to just being a bad winter for that particular type of small songbird. Larger birds, such as blue jays and doves, did not seem to be affected, just the smallest of the songbirds. One woman finally approached someone in authority and one of the birds was sent away for examination. The culprit was a form of salmonella poisoning. We also learned that this has happened in the past, and because songbirds will visit more than a single feeding station in a neighborhood, even a largely spread out rural one, such as the type we live in, the spread of this disease is often rampant once it starts. The recommendation was to clean up all the feeders in any given area, dump them, clean and bleach them, and do not place back out for a period of at least a couple of weeks. As this winter was not as cold as past winters, and the snowfall was not as deep as it commonly is at this time of year, the birds would still be able to find food, but not in such concentrated areas around the feeders, and the salmonella would have a chance to slow its progression from feeder to feeder. I also wondered if the lack of cold and deep snow was a reason the salmonella was so prevalent in the first place though. By no stretch of the imagination am I an expert on diseases, bird or otherwise, I was nonetheless thinking that the normal cold that we usually experience at this time of year would not have allowed the salmonella to grow and spread. Spring thaw is not normal by us until approximately March, but as of this morning, the thaw was coming out of the ground in numerous areas around us.
Right then though, we still had to deal with the spread of the contamination, so we continued to do as recommended, spraying bleach around where the feeders were normally situated to help kill it off. We then went on and dumped and sanitized all of our feeders, and even burned a few wooden ones that we were unsure how to actually clean. Someone will most likely think that extreme, but we felt it was better to destroy a few feeders, than risk the continued spread of the contamination. A few weeks later when we felt it would be safe, to once again, put out feed, we invested in several new, easily cleaned, plastic feeders.
So far, we have not noticed any new deaths amongst the songbirds, but I have noticed quite a decrease in their numbers. Where on a typical morning the ground beneath the feeders and the feeders themselves would be literally covered with birds, there might now be a half a dozen, a dozen at the most. Why the larger birds were not affected I also wonder, but am glad they were not. For a while, I did have concerns about several fox squirrel that frequent the feeders too, as we did not see them for the time that the feeders were down, but the day we replaced them they were back. Keeping a garden up year round means a responsibility for the wildlife that visits right along with many of the other tasks a garden involves. If you have not cleaned your feeders lately, take the time to do so before something such as this has a chance to occur. We plan to keep cleaning ours periodically, something I realize now that we should have done more often than the twice a year we did in the past.