Health Update: Peanuts, Salmonella, and Backyard Birds

By Hugh Powell
February 3, 2009
A White-breasted Nuthatch takes advantage of a peanut feeder. A White-breasted Nuthatch takes advantage of a peanut feeder.

Bird watchers across the country are concerned about the recent outbreak of Salmonella from contaminated peanut products, and we’re getting several calls and e-mails per day asking us what it means for the birds at your backyard suet and peanut feeders.

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Birdchick has already begun an investigation of her own by asking suet manufacturers how safe their products are. But one of the first things she discovered was that the manufacturers themselves aren’t sure – a consequence of how deeply buried in the supply chain the outbreak is. (Update: see more of Birdchick’s findings in her latest post. Update #2, Feb 18, 2009: Birdchick reports on suet recall by Scott’s. Read the recall press release.)

So I consulted the Centers for Disease Control and Food and Drug Administration websites, and talked to a few of the Lab’s Project FeederWatch folks to give you a brief synopsis of the outbreak, offer a few basic tips to go by, and point you toward more information. Here’s what I learned:

Salmonella is a virulent disease that can afflict humans, their pets, and wild birds. Between September 2008 and January 2009, a total of 529 people in 43 states became sick because of contaminated peanut products (plus one person in Canada). So far, 116 have been hospitalized and the disease may have contributed to eight deaths, according to the CDC.

The outbreak stems from a single peanut processing company. It’s the Peanut Corporation of America, located in Blakely, Georgia. Many kinds of peanut products may be contaminated, including whole, chopped, and ground-up peanuts in addition to peanut butter. The Peanut Corporation of America supplies peanuts to many food manufacturers across the country. More than 180 brands of food may be contaminated, including items you buy at the store and dishes you order in a restaurant.

Between 2007 and 2009, the Peanut Corporation of America went ahead with several shipments of peanut products after they had tested positive for salmonella. Many products made between January 1, 2007 and the present have been recalled. Here’s a list of items that have been recalled, searchable by brand name.

Peanut butter from major manufacturers is safe. Major supermarket brands of peanut butter are safe to eat, according to the CDC. That’s because those large brands process their own peanuts, whereas other food manufacturers buy their peanuts or peanut products from a supplier.

It will be difficult to be completely sure whether purchased peanut-containing suet or seed mix is safe. The list of recalled products includes some pet foods. Unfortunately, products intended for feeding wild birds are tracked and regulated separately from human and pet foods. Without knowing in detail where a bird food manufacturer purchased its peanuts or peanut butter, there’s no way to be sure it didn’t come from a tainted source.

Keep your feeders – and your hands – clean and healthy. It’s good practice to clean your bird feeders periodically, anyway. Lots of birds perch on your bird feeders, so they’re like doorknobs during a flu outbreak. To clean your feeder, take it apart and use a dishwasher on a hot setting or hand wash either with soap and boiling water or with a dilute bleach solution (no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water), this will  kill any bacteria that may be present. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before refilling. After handling your feeders, scrub your hands with soap and water to keep from transferring any bacteria.

Here’s Project FeederWatch leader David Bonter with advice in a bit more detail:

Salmonellosis is caused by a bacteria belonging to the genus Salmonella. It is a common cause of mortality in feeder birds, particularly siskins, goldfinches, and redpolls, but the symptoms are not always obvious. A sick bird may appear thin, fluffed up, and may have fecal material on its vent and swollen eyelids. Infected birds are often lethargic and easy to approach. Some infected birds may show no outward symptoms, but are carriers of the disease and can spread the infection to other birds.

Salmonellosis is primarily transmitted [from bird to bird] through fecal contamination of food and water. It may also be transmitted through bird-to-bird contact. Occasionally, outbreaks of the disease cause significant mortality in certain species.

Disease transmission can be reduced by 1) cleaning areas that are contaminated with the bacteria, and 2) discouraging large flocks of birds from gathering in one location.  With respect to bird feeding, we recommend the following if you live in an area experiencing a salmonellosis outbreak:

– Clean your feeders and birdbaths. To clean your feeders, take them apart and use a dishwasher on a hot setting or hand wash either with soap and boiling water or with a dilute bleach solution (no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water), this will  kill any bacteria that may be present.

– Clean your bird feeding area by washing all structures holding your feeders and raking the ground surrounding the feeders.

– Do not reinstall your feeders for a few weeks (or until sick birds are no longer being reported in your area).

If you do continue to feed birds:

– Place your feeders in new locations around your yard.

– Vary your feeding locations so that birds do not concentrate in one location.

– Remove feeders that allow contact between fecal material and food (such as platform feeders).

– Clean your feeders several times a week, following the instructions above.  Be sure that feeders are dry before filling them with seed.

The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have much more information about salmonella. See a summary of the outbreak, the FDA’s searchable list of recalled foods, and the CDC’s background information on salmonella and its effects. There’s also a CDC podcast that explains the situation for kids, and a video on peanut do’s and don’ts from the FDA.

The bottom line: the chance of you – or the birds in your backyard – becoming sick from tainted peanut products is small, but real. It is definitely not safe to feed birds any of the human foods included in the CDC’s recall – you should throw those products away without opening them. And it’s always a good policy to keep your bird feeders clean, and to stay on the lookout for sick birds around your backyard.


  • Interesting

  • Wow that is interesting. I never knew suet contained peanut butter.

  • libraryresearch

    Here’s a related question – sort of….

    I noticed a deer slurping the tray of my plastic cylinder feeder. I shooed her off but have no idea how often this might happen. I don’t think they can get much seed other than what’s in the tray, though they can make the cylinder tilt. I have not noticed the seed level dropping a lot overnight. But do I need to worry about cross-contamination/spread of germs among the species?

  • CeCe

    Hello bird friends

    Text below is a 2/6/09 email from Global Harvest Foods that produce suet, seed, and nut mixes for birds and is sold through Fred Meyers, Kroger, Ralphs, Safewaym and many other stores. They report having a different source than the Peanut Corp of America, and thus do not have Salmonella contamination in their products. See web site link below.


    Dear CeCe,

    Thank you for your inquiry. We only use raw or roasted peanuts in our products and we are in no way affiliated with any of the companies that are experiencing salmonella problems. Our products are safe for the birds.

    Thank you for using our products.

    Sharon Pfeiffer

    Customer Service

    Global Harvest Foods

    Phone: 206-829-2310

    FAX: 206-957-1362


    From: CC To: Sharon Pfeiffer

    Subject: Peanuts, birds and Salmonella


    I have been feeding several of your suet and seed mixes for several years. I am concerned about the recent news of salmonella poisoning in the US and would like to know if you are a direct or second level purchaser of peanuts for your bird foods that come from the contaminated facilities. Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) at its Blakely, Georgia processing plant.

    I just do not want to poison any birds and the local Audubon Society in Portland reported high salmonella deaths in American Gold Finches several years ago (not related to current issue).

    Thank you, CeCe

  • Not telling

    I know for a fact that peanut corp of america supplies a large amount of peanuts into the bird feeding world. I also know they have shipped red tagged peanuts to canada for bird seed (subsidiary Tidewater Blanching). It is easy to learn where peanuts originated. Ask the manufacturers who their brokers are. The brokers keep everything straight in case of rejected loads and to help with billing. Peanut Corp of America is a large supplier and often does it through the owners brother and friends. Hundreds of truckloads/year at 40,000+ lbs per load. That’s a lot of peanuts.

  • Paulie

    Nobody seems to remember but this just happened in late ’07 with peanut butter too! Never heard the outcome of that but it resulted in the recall of products going back six months.



  • Judy Voldstad

    please keep me updated on all backyard birding thanks

  • Jeramie Dreyfuss

    Iprobably spent $1,000. a month buying nyger seed and sunflower chips this winter and spent about 3 hours a day refilling all the feeders and heated birdbaths, I just wish I had known to recognize a bird who died of salmonella and knew to disinfect my feeders at the least each week. In the end 65 pine siskins died before we got it all cleaned up and I sent 8 dead birds to a wildlife lab for necrospy and salmonella was dianosed. Sadly, these dead birds are all over my state but with a necropsy our government officials will not call it salmonella. They die with seed on their beak and basically they starve to death even though they are always at the feeder or bath because salmonella causes a lump in their throat and the food and water can’t get past. I found 2 dead like this last winter at my back door. I have been so frustrated trying to get papers/companies who sell bird seed, etc. to get the word out that we must disinfect our feeders and the ground beneath. We must pick up all the old shells which is a huge job. I used a shop vac and when that didn’t work well enough I covered over the old seed with new soil or gravel.A great idea is to put a childs blue wading pool under the feeders and then discard the seeds that fall in and hose out the feces. It broke my heart to see my little birds get sick. It also mad me nuts that people are in such denial about why the birds died. No, all 400 birds did not fly in to your window and if they did you need to fix that. Also, don’t use bleach to clean hummingbird feeders. Thank you for helping to educate us. We love birds and don’t want to harm them.

  • maria gritsch

    Maybe I should toss out this 8lb sack of Kaytee Ultra ‘waste free’ bird food since it’s composed largely of peanuts, etc…it was marked down at Target, from 18.99 to 9.44….?

    i thought of roasting the contents in the oven at 350, for an hour or so,….will that eliminate any salmonella or other pathogens?

    Guess I also better do a better job of cleaning areas….

    here in so cal we get lots of goldfiches (nyger eaters), migrators, and BandTails and they go through huge quantites of food per month, especially right now

  • This was very informative. Thank you for taking the time to look into this and let people know. I know that those of us who like to watch the birds, would not like to see them become sick.


  • Barbara A. Cox

    What is the current level of concern for this disease. I live in Maine.

  • Bird feeders are the greatest way to bring all kinds of exotic species of birds into ones life….

    I currently reside in South Jersey….

    I have a glass bird feeder in my front yard and it really is amazing all the beautiful birds that come into my yard…

    Plus it makes me feel good that I’m providing them with a good food source…..



  • That is very interesting and good to know. I never thought about bird suet and Salmonella in the same thought. I hope the makers of suet are taking extra precautions to stop the spread of Salmonella in the products

  • Great points. Thanks for sharing that info. We have several suet blocks hanging in our backyard. I sure hope I’m killing any the birds in the area. I keep my a look out…

  • Lily

    I think I’ve seen a Pine Siskin with salmonella.