Wild songbirds behind multi-state salmonella outbreak, CDC says

The CDC says birds can carry germs like salmonella while appearing healthy and clean

A salmonella outbreak linked to 19 illnesses including eight hospitalizations across eight states has been linked to wild songbirds, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Thursday. The agency’s investigation, which says illnesses date as far back as December 26, 2020, said the bacteria from sick people’s samples are closely related, and that it was also similar to the samples collected from sick or dead wild pine siskin birds.

The agency also warned that the true number of illnesses is "likely much higher" as many people can recover from salmonella without medical care. The outbreak sickened people ages 2 months to 89 years, while patients had a median age of 16. Health officials said laboratory and epidemiologic data point to contact with the wild songbirds and with bird feeders is likely leading to the illnesses.

The agency warns you can get sick when you touch your mouth with unwashed hands after touching birds, bird feeders or birdbaths.

The agency warns you can get sick when you touch your mouth with unwashed hands after touching birds, bird feeders or birdbaths. (iStock)

As a result, the CDC is reminding people that birds can carry germs like salmonella while appearing healthy and clean. The germs can also spread between species of birds, to pets and to people.

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"You can get sick when you touch your mouth with unwashed hands after touching wild birds, bird feeders or birdbaths, or your pets that have contact with wild birds," the agency warned, adding that cleaning and disinfecting bird feeders and bird baths weekly or when they are visibly dirty can help keep you safe.

The agency also warns against cleaning bird feeders in the kitchen or in places where food is prepared or stored. Keeping pets away from bird feeders and birdbaths and the areas under them can also help. In the event that you find a sick or dead bird in the yard, officials recommend removing the feeder and bath for at least two weeks and cleaning them outdoors.

"Do not touch or hand-feed wild birds with your bare hands," the agency said. "If you find a sick bird, call your state wildlife agency or wildlife rehabilitator."

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Salmonella can cause diarrhea and high fever and stomach cramps which will start around six hours to six days after swallowing the bacteria. While most people recover without treatment after four to seven days, some people, especially young children and older adults and those with weakened immune systems may have more severe illnesses that require treatment or hospitalization.