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DEC: Bacteria from bird feeders killing songbirds

Long Islanders with outdoor bird feeders should be especially mindful of hygiene this spring, as salmonellosis has been confirmed in New York State as the cause of death over the past few months of a number of common redpolls -- small songbirds that are members of the finch family.

An infection with the bacteria salmonella, salmonellosis is a common disease associated with bird feeders that can easily spread from bird to bird, according to a release this week from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The organism spreads among birds through direct contact with feces from infected birds, as well as by ingesting contaminated food or water, DEC officials said.

"Bird feeders and the seed on the ground around them can easily become contaminated with feces, which results in the spread of the pathogen," the news release said. "Sick birds can be identified by their lack of activity and reluctance to fly."

Pine siskins, also in the finch family, are also sensitive to the infection, which can affect other feeder birds.

The spread can be curtailed by "removing, emptying and disinfecting feeders with a 10-percent bleach solution," the DEC said, as well as cleaning up seed on the ground.

"Redpolls are especially susceptible to salmonellosis during late winter months," said Kathleen Moser, DEC assistant commissioner for natural resources.

Found most of the time in Canada, common redpolls head south to New York only in winters when food is scarce, with this past winter seeing "one of the most amazing movements on record," said David Bonter, ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca.

While only a few common redpoll stragglers -- if that -- are likely left on the Island as most are heading back north, it's still a good idea to clean feeders and rotate them, Bonter said. That's because seed hulls and fecal matter can accumulate below the feeders and bacteria can persist.