An American goldfinch, frequent denizen of Western Slope feeders. (Courtesy photo) 

Local birders have been a-Twitter lately about a disease that has taken out huge numbers of songbirds, members of the finch family. The feisty, colorful characters are frequent visitors at feeders on the Western Slope.

It’s not that the finches have been dying in huge numbers in the Centennial State. But birders are concerned. This winter, a large number of sick and dead pine siskins, goldfinches and Cassin’s finches have been reported near feeders in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The culprit is salmonella, a disease that is easily transmitted wherever large groups of birds congregate to feed. By March, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources set out an alert: salmonella had been turning up there, too. 

Given that Utah is just over the border from Western Slope denizens — and that pine siskins, Cassin finches and American goldfinches are all frequent sights at locals’ feeders — it seemed reasonable to ask whether sick and dying birds are being spotted here.

The answer is, no.

 “I have house finches, a variety of sparrows, Red wing blackbirds, a brown thrasher (and) mourning doves,” Ridgway birder Christine Lance reported. “None have reported sickness. However, my bird feeding ends this week, because the warblers will be arriving and I don’t want them crashing into my windows.”

Farther north, birder Larry Collins, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited feed-and-supply store in Grand Junction, also reported no dead bird spottings. “There’s been a breakout in northern Utah, but nothing that we’ve heard of in Colorado at all,” Collins said. He would know: “This store is a franchise, and we pass along news to owners in other areas,” Collins said. Similarly, “If we see something like that around here, I’ll send out an alert to other areas. People are more than welcome to call us for updates.” The phone number is 970-242-2843.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife “hasn’t had any reports” of salmonella breakouts “around here this year,” spokesman Joe Lewandowski said. But the state’s wildlife agency is on the alert, and asks anyone who spies three or more sick or dead birds over a two-week period to report their findings. 

“The reports should be made as soon as you can to a CPW office, or to a local vet,” Lewandowski said. 

Signs of salmonellisis, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, “may include ruffled feathers, rapid breathing, lethargy, weakness, neurological signs and diarrhea.” The disease is especially easily spread at platform feeders, and on the ground beneath feeders, where birds gather and ingest feces along with their seed. To keep feeders free of diseases of all sorts — including conjunctivitis, another finch-killer — experts advise cleaning feeders thoroughly with a mixture of nine parts water to one part bleach each week, and allowing them to dry thoroughly before hanging them back up again. “If you can sweep any stray seeds up daily beneath the feeders,” that’s a good idea as well, Lewandowski said. “During the summer, you don’t need to feed birds. You really should attract them naturally, with flowers and water,” to prevent another dangerous summer visitor — bears — from visiting the premises. 

You don’t have to purchase seeds in order to care for avian guests this time of year (unless you really want to), in other words. Zach Hutchinson, community science coordinator for Audubon Rockies, offered more reassuring news: the salmonella outbreak was caused by a rare “irruption” of thousands of finches, natives of northern, arboreal areas. The unusually large number of birds flew south this winter to find food, he explained. 

“It’s likely that these birds will be returning home soon, because it’s time to breed. Their body clocks are telling them what to do. If we haven’t already had reports of” large numbers of songbirds dying in this state, Hutchinson said, “it’s unlikely that we’re going to see them.”