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April 16, 2009

Outbreak of salmonella killing Southern songbirds

Salmonella infections have been killing more wild birds than usual in the Southeast this winter, but the increase does not seem related to the nationwide human disease outbreak tied to tainted peanut products, according to wildlife scientists.

The Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., said testing so far has shown that the birds have been dying of a different Salmonella strain than the one in the human outbreak. It is Salmonella Typhimurium, and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study sees outbreaks of this type in birds every year, but usually not to this extent. Salmonella Typhimurium is also the serotype involved in the human outbreak, but the bird strain does not match genetically with the human cases.

What can you do to help stop the outbreak in our wild birds? Laurel Barnhill, bird conservation coordinator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said that since transmission of the Salmonella bacteria is through saliva or feces, it is important to keep areas where birds congregate clean:

Most of the Salmonella-infected dead birds have been pine siskins and goldfinches, though some cardinals and other birds have died of salmonellosis as well, according to Barnhill.

Salmonellosis is a common cause of death in birds at bird feeders, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis. The pathogen can spread from bird to bird through direct contact or through food or water contaminated with feces from an infected bird or mammal. Infected birds may appear healthy but can shed the organism in their feces.

Salmonella is also suspected in pets with exposure to dead pine siskins and goldfinches. A North Carolina animal hospital recently hospitalized three cats and one dog due to suspected Salmonella infection from contact with sick or dead pine siskin or goldfinch songbirds.

Please be on the alert if you see a bird that is weak or acting unusually. The route of infection is oral so take precautions to keep pets from eating or being exposed to dead birds. Outdoor cats are especially at risk. Even a cat that doesn't normally hunt birds would find a dead bird enticing. If you suspect your pet has had exposure to a sick bird, contact your veterinarian immediately. Quick treatment with antibiotics and intravenous fluids can save a life.

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.

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