Wildlife experts say regularly washing outside bird feeders and keeping the area around feeders swept clean remains important, even after salmonella contamination in wild birdseed appears to have subsided in the Pacific Northwest.

Earlier this year, experts sounded the alarm about a salmonella outbreak in wild birds throughout the Western states. Bird feeding increased in popularity during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when people started noticing an uptick in sick and dying birds, the cause was traced to wild birdseed contaminated with salmonella, and people were advised to put their bird feeders away.

“When birds migrate out of the north and gather intensively around bird feeders,” infections spread, said Joel Sauder, regional wildlife biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department at Lewiston.

“It seems to hit the finch populations hard, especially pine siskins,” Sauder said. “But it can affect a lot of different species. It’s principally spread in bird feeders.”

Sauder said the infection doesn’t usually affect raptors.

Salmonellosis, or salmonella, is caused when bird food gets wet and bacteria grows on the seed. The infection spreads through feces and is a fatal condition for birds. Symptoms include birds that close their eyes and appear to be drowsy. Often they’re puffed up, as they do in cold weather, but it is an indication that they’re sick. Birds usually die within 24 hours of infection.

The bacteria in their feces, however, lingers and can be picked up by anything coming into contact with it, including humans and pets.

Sauder said there had not been an outbreak of salmonella among wild birds in several years “but it can happen any time. It is just in the population. As with humans, there’s a bad flu year or a good flu year; kind of the same thing happens (with birds). It comes and goes. This happened to be a year where it did show up in numbers, and we got consistent reports of it.”

The reports have dropped off in the past two months, and the department issued a news release recently telling people they can once again start hanging their bird feeders and filling them with seed.

“No additional report since this past winter,” said Tricia Hebdon with the department. “It has been quiet this spring related to (salmonella) and birds.”

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.