People on Vashon and across the nation have seen enormous flocks of Pine Siskins recently. What’s happening?
Typically, Pine Siskins are far more abundant in Canada than in the U.S. But in the past year, Canada’s boreal forest produced only a scant amount of the spruce cones that Siskins depend on, so the birds have moved south to find food.
Backyard feeders have been inundated with these hungry birds—and that can cause a problem. When the birds flock tightly together, they might transmit salmonella bacteria through droppings and saliva.
So we’re hearing people on Vashon ask this question: Are their bird feeders helping Pine Siskins survive by providing food, or are they causing the spread of a deadly disease?
Some expert views
The Progressive Animal Welfare Society, PAWS, has admitted many sick Pine Siskins in the past couple of months, and its veterinarians are recommending that feeders should be removed to reduce disease.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is also advising people to temporarily stop feeding wild birds or, if they continue feeding them, to take extra steps to keep their feeders clean.
Another point of view was posted by a wildlife veterinarian on Tweeters (an email listserve where people share information about birds). He pointed out that all birds naturally harbor salmonella bacteria. His opinion is that the birds that die from salmonellosis almost always have some pre-existing condition, such as malnourishment, that makes them more susceptible to the disease. Emaciated Pine Siskins have been observed locally. Does that mean that with the birds in such stress, we might save more birds by feeding them than by removing feeders?
If you choose to feed them
If you decide to keep feeding Siskins or any other birds, it’s critically important that feeders and the ground under them be kept clean—and that means a commitment to a time-consuming chore. WDFW encourages people to clean their feeders daily, although other organizations suggest they should clean them every week or so, or when the feeder has emptied.
Keeping bird baths clean is equally important.
To clean a feeder, rinse it well with warm, soapy water, then dunk it in a solution of nine parts water and one part bleach, and finally rinse and dry it before refilling.
You should also clean up the ground below the feeder by raking or shoveling up feces and seed casings. “Patio mix” bird seeds will reduce the amount of debris under feeders.
Use tube feeders rather than tray feeders where birds would leave droppings and other contaminates.
Keep cats away
A cat that sees a cloud of Pine Siskins at your feeder will think it has died and gone to heaven; these birds are easy marks. Don’t allow cats near your feeder.
Watch for signs of disease
It’s also important to carefully observe the birds at your feeder for any indications that they’re diseased. Sick birds might fluff out their feathers or seem listless and tame, allowing you to approach when they’re on the feeder or the ground. See the link below to learn about other symptoms.
A sighting of a sick bird signals that it’s time to take down the feeder for a couple of weeks.
While you’re thinking about how to nourish birds, consider adding native plants to your yard this spring. Salmonberry, elderberry, and serviceberry are just a few local favorites. Besides creating a healthy, natural source of food for birds, you’ll have great fun watching a Cedar Waxwing or Swainson’s Thrush gorge on berries from a shrub you planted.
Want more information? Try these links:
Pine Siskins Have Taken Over the Country: www.audubon.org/news/-pine-siskin-finch-irruption-fall-2020
How to Clean Your Bird Feeder: www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder
Is This Bird Sick or Dying?: www.thespruce.com/how-to-recognize-sick-birds-387344
Pine Siskin photos by Jim Diers