Do Backyard Bird Feeders Spread Salmonella? The Human Role in Avian Disease

Immunologist Peter Doherty shows us that the fate of birds and humans are more connected than we might think.

In Their Fate is Our Fate, Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Peter Doherty takes readers on a tour of how avian diseases intersect with human populations. He explains how scientists track the spread of viruses, some of which have dramatic consequences. West Nile Virus felling large numbers of crows in New York City in 1999 and the mass slaughters of farmed birds following bird flu outbreaks in the United States in 1983 and Hong Kong in 1997 offer reminders of the constant threat of deadly diseases leaping from the winged world into ours.

Human populations have destabilized the environmental balance, and the ways we interact with our avian kin can add to the risk of epidemics, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, Doherty blames the use of bird feeders for spreading salmonella and suggests the keeping of backyard chickens was partly to blame for the spread of bird flu in the Netherlands in 2003. According to Doherty, our duty of care to the planet involves "a process that can be in direct conflict with long-held beliefs and well-established practices, on the one hand, and with urban romanticization and anthropomorphism of animals on the other."

While Doherty's aim with this book was to move past established environmental themes and into "darker realms of pathologies, poisons, and pestilences," there are conservation stories to celebrate, such as the discovery—and subsequent outlawing—of a drug linked to poisoning endangered vultures in India. We can take practical actions to help maintain healthy bird populations by volunteering for population-tracking bird counts and watching for "unusual instances of mortality," especially among waterfowl.

The ringing alarms of rampant habitat loss, environmental pollution, and climate change demand our vigilance. "Watching the birds tells us what is happening in the broader environment," he writes. "We should observe closely. In the long run, their fate is likely to be our fate."