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Are dirty feeders killing the Northland's birds?

A healthy pine siskin (left) and a healthy common redpoll feed on a thistle feeder Thursday afternoon at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth. There have been reports in Northeastern Minnesota of diseased pine siskins and redpolls this spring. (Clint Austin /

Redpolls and pine siskins are dying at bird feeders in central and Northeastern Minnesota, and the cause is suspected to be salmonella from spoiled feed.

"The first signs came in late February," said Rich Staffon, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager at Cloquet. "We've had a dramatic increase in inquiries in the last couple of weeks. Huge numbers [of birds] have built up at people's feeders, in the hundreds of birds in some cases."

While numbers of these winter finches are high, just a handful of birds are dying, Staffon said.

"This happens every few years that we see this kind of die-off," Staffon said. "It seems to happen in delayed, damp springs."

A bird in a weakened state usually will sit on the ground with its feathers fluffed up, and it is often not as wary as it normally would be, he said. The bacteria is passed from bird to bird at feeders.

Duluth birders Molly and David Evans have seen apparently sick redpolls at their feeder within the past week, Molly Evans said.

"I had one I know for sure I saw," she said. "And David came in the other day carrying the feeder and said he had seen several not looking healthy."

David Evans cleaned and disinfected the feeder and put it back up. The birds coming now appear healthy, Molly Evans said. And there are plenty of them.

"Maybe not 100, but close to that," she said. "Everybody's swamped. It's amazing."

The remedy for an infected feeder is simple. People who observe dead or weakened birds should empty their bird feeders, wash the feeders with hot, soapy water, then disinfect feeders with a 10 percent solution of bleach. Leave feeders without food for a couple of weeks, Staffon said. After that, the feeders can be refilled.

Also, it's a good idea to rake up and dispose of discarded feed on the ground beneath the feeder, Duluth birder Koni Sundquist said.

For more information on bird diseases such as a salmonella infection, go to the National Wildlife Health Center Web site at