Professors’ discovery of sick birds leads to new research

FRESNO STATE — Quarantines and the remote work culture of the COVID-19 pandemic have brought many back to nature. People were spending more time in their backyards or in local parks, and this change in lifestyle led to a reported increase in the purchase of bird feeders.

While feeding birds and connecting with wildlife seems like a good thing, it can actually be harmful to the animal population, according to Fresno State Faculty. So when the Fresno State biology professor Dr. Tricia Van Laar discovered a sick bird that died in its own backyard, she and fellow professor Dr. Joel Slade set to work to uncover a trend that is endangering wildlife – and possibly humans.

Image by Dr. Tricia Van Laar.

Dr. Tricia Van Laar.

The pandemic’s well-meaning back-to-nature movement has brought more bird feeders into the local environment. But bird feeders attract large numbers of birds and bring them into close contact with each other. Feeders can serve as breeding grounds for the spread of germs and disease from sick birds and dirty feeders. Diseases can spread between birds at feeders, leading to more severe outbreaks of harmful pathogens.

Humans who handle dirty bird feeders or sick birds themselves run the risk of infection. This adds to an already growing problem of urbanizationcausing fragmentation of avian habitat and disrupting gene flow, which can lead to greater disease risks, Dr Slade said.

Changing landscapes, new health concerns
Image by Dr. Joel Slade.

Dr Joel Slade.

By 2050, it is estimated that more than 66% of the population will live in urban areas, highlighting the need to study the impact of urbanization on animal adaptability and survival. “How animals will cope with this change and how the disease will spread among the non-human and human population is critical knowledge as we continue to develop the land,” Dr Slade said.

This work is led by Dr. Slade and Dr. Van Laar of Fresno State, who received funding through the University Program for Teaching and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB) for their proposal entitled “Salmonella in the City: Disease and Immunology in an Urban Songbird”.

They plan to study the differences between urban and rural house finches to uncover the effect of urbanization on disease and immunity in urban animals. The most important impact of this study is that “ultimately, the data will help reveal the complex relationship between urbanization, disease, and immunity in urban animals that has implications for conservation and human health” for the future, Slade said.

A backyard mystery sparks discovery
Image of a pine siskin.

Pine siskin. (Image by Veronika Andrews)

After the bird died in Dr. Van Laar’s backyard, she took it to her lab for testing. She discovered that he had salmonella. “With the [avian] With the salmonellosis epidemic hitting the United States and Canada, Dr. Joel Slade’s work is timely,” she said. “Especially since we now know that salmonellosis occurs in wild birds in Fresno, since I found a pine siskin in my own backyard suffering from this infection. Unfortunately this was fatal and I now worry about the local feeder bird populations. I am delighted with the results of this study and look forward to continuing our strong collaborations.

Salmonella can lead to one of many diseases that birds can get from dirty bird feeders. Many scientists look to birds for signs of ecosystem health or as early warning signs of disease. In fact, birds are powerful biological indicators of environmental health.

“The innate immune system of house finches is good at fighting salmonella, but pine siskins are not,” Dr. Slade said. “These are indicators of the state of the environment. There could be pollution or disease if there are problems with the birds.

Image of a Western Bluebird.

Western bluebird. (Image by Mr. Maggs)

Dr. Slade knows birds. He studied field ornithology as an undergraduate student, and he regularly conducts avian research. western bluebirds still use the birdhouses he set up with the students in the past.

Fresno State Research in Action

For this study, Dr. Slade and Dr. Van Laar will work with three Fresno State students. Two of them will be graduate students enrolled in the master’s program in biotechnology or biology. They will be involved in experimental design, field and laboratory work, and bioinformatics analysis. The third student will be an undergraduate who will help collect bird data in the field and in the laboratory. The three students will contribute to the manuscript and co-present the results of the study at conferences.

Image of Dr. Joel Slade hanging a bird monitoring station. “As a first-generation Latinx grad student at Fresno State, I know first-hand the immense anxiety and tension that builds up when going through graduate school, family, and working multiple jobs. part-time to stay afloat,” said graduate student Ramon Lomeli. “With the funding received from this CSUPERB grant, I will have the opportunity to focus and consolidate more time and effort into the project.”

Students will gain practical skills in genetics, statistical analysis, field biology, microbiology, basic research skills, and eco-immunology.

Image of Dr. Joel Slade at work in a lab. “Researching how salmonella interacts in urban environments and the ability of birds to fight off the bacteria is critical for the conservation of local populations of birds susceptible to the bacteria,” said graduate student Lindsey Biehler.

The study will involve monitoring bird feeding stations on the Fresno State campus and at San Joaquin Experimental Range (see map below). Scientists will regularly draw blood and collect bacterial swabs and fecal tests from birds at the stations to compare data measuring the killing ability of bacteria in vitro against salmonella between urban and rural populations of house finches.

DNA from blood samples will be used to characterize immune genes that may differ between rural and urban populations, which may help explain the bacteria-killing abilities of finches.

“Being able to experience work outside of a lab has been the most enjoyable experience of my three years at Fresno State,” said an undergraduate student. Parmeet Kaur.

The data collected will also be used in the future for externally funded studies of how humans may impact the evolution of the avian immune system, Slade said.

Slade offers seven safety tips for feeding and interacting with birds:
  1. If you have a bird feeder, be sure to clean it regularly. The CDC recommends cleaning feeders at least once a month, if not more often if bird droppings are present.
  2. Wear protective gloves when cleaning.
  3. Use a bleach solution and rinse thoroughly, leaving no bleach residue.
    Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling your bird feeder, even if you are wearing gloves.
  4. Do not personally handle sick or dead birds.
  5. Contact the Fresno Wildlife Rehabilitation Center if you see a sick or dead bird fresnowildlife.org Where crittercreek.org.
  6. Be aware of local outbreaks and dismantle your bird feeders if there is one.
  7. Check the local health department website for updates on west nile virussalmonella, etc.

By Selene Kinder.

Watch this video on how to clean and locate your bird feeders.

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