Songbirds - especially goldfinches, purple finches and pine siskins - are dying all across Tennessee from salmonella poisoning.
At the same time, two different bird food companies in recent days recalled suet and seed blends containing peanuts, yet bird experts say there are conflicting indications about whether the dying birds and the recalls are connected.
The only thing the experts agree on is that the birds themselves can spread the illness from feeder to feeder, and even to the people tending them.
"We've picked them (dead birds) up in about seven (East Tennessee) counties now, and we've had birds dying in as many as up to 30 birds in one group, so it's pretty significant numbers," said Scott Dykes, a wildlife biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Mr. Dykes said TWRA began getting calls about dying birds in East Tennessee in late February and send some birds to be necropsied at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study Center at the University of Georgia in Athens.
What to do:
* Wearing gloves, spray down or soak feeders in a 10 percent bleach solution: 1 part bleach, 9 parts water.
* Leave for about a half hour
* Relocate the feeder, or leave it down for several weeks.
* Wearing gloves, bury dead birds, or bag them for disposal in the trash.
"The result was salmonella," he said. TWRA biologists also sent some seed samples to be analyzed, but Mr. Dykes said he still is awaiting those results.
There also have been reports of birds dying in other parts of Tennessee and North Carolina, according to the experts and news reports.
Dr. David Aborn, ornithologist at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said birds normally carry some salmonella bacteria in their digestive tracks, and periods of stress such as cold weather or food shortages can weaken their systems. He said he had heard that there might be a connection with tainted seed products, but not confirmed it.
He recommends birdwatchers clean their feeders with a bleach solution a couple of times a week. And wear gloves.
"The birds can spread this to each other and even to people," he said. "Especially if there have large groups of birds around the feeders - through their droppings."
He said local residents who find dead birds in their yards should bury them or dispose of them in a bag in the garbage "so they don't contaminate other birds" or animals.
On Feb. 16, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that Scotts Co. LLC of Marysville, Ohio, had voluntarily recalled specific lots of five suet wild bird food products "after learning those products may contain peanut meal purchased from the Peanut Corporation of America's (PCA) plant in Blakely, Ga."
And on Wednesday, Wild Birds Unlimited announced one of its suppliers, Burkmann Feeds, a southern regional supplier of bird food, found salmonella in one bag of its Wild Birds Unlimited Wildlife Blend.
"As a result, Burkmann Feeds is recalling all WBU Wildlife Blend," said Wild Birds Unlimited Chief Naturalist John Schaust.
As a precautionary measure, Wild Birds Unlimited Woodpecker Blend also was recalled because it may have shared common ingredients, Mr. Schaust said.
But he added that he does not believe the recalls and the finch deaths in Tennessee are connected.
"In the wildlife blend, the suspect ingredient was peanuts. These birds (finches) don't eat peanuts," he said. "There is absolutely no correlation between the bird food and the salmonella deaths that are occurring in your area."
The Blakely, Ga., Peanut Corporation of America plant has been the focus of investigations for months after tainted peanuts there continued to be shipped to customers making food products across the country, according to Food and Drug Administration officials and news reports.
The ensuing salmonella outbreak has sickened 600 people and been linked to nine deaths, according to the Associated Press. More than 1,800 products have been recalled.
Kyle Waggener, Director of Education at the Chattanooga Nature Center, said workers there have reported no dead birds, but Sherry Sparks, a ranger at the Cherokee National Forest, said residents in Polk County have contacted her about dying goldfinches.
Nancy Zagaya, a licensed veterinary technician in the avian exotics ward at the University of Tennessee, said since spring is almost here, birdwatching residents might consider leaving their feeders down for several weeks.
If they choose to keep their feeders up, she said, they should spray them down or soak them in a 10 percent solution of bleach, then relocate them to clean ground.