Conservation IssuesBird-Related Activities and Avian Flu
Pat Sziber
Bird-Related Activities and Avian Flu
Pat Sziber

Have you been wondering about the status of bird flu in the U.S. or hesitating to set out your bird feeders because of it? We hope the following information will assure you that it is perfectly safe to continue to welcome birds to your backyard and to engage in all the other bird-related activities you have always enjoyed. We all get a bit nervous when we hear about another outbreak among poultry in Turkey, or human H5N1 cases in the Far East…but there is no reason to think we are on the brink of an avian flu pandemic. The following information has been gleaned from several authoritative sources.

Are we at risk? Currently, there is risk in some regions of the world. But the nature of that risk does not translate into danger for wild bird-related activities in the western hemisphere at this time. It is important to understand that there are two main variants of H5N1, Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza (LPAI) and High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). LPAI H5N1 is widely present in bird populations but does not necessarily make them ill. On the other hand, HPAI H5N1 is the dangerous subtype of avian flu that can wipe out poultry stocks and is thought to have the potential to mutate into a form that can be transmitted among humans and possibly lead to a pandemic. The cases you have read about in the paper were caused by HPAI. In all cases, humans stricken with HPAI H5N1 have been in very close contact with poultry stocks in unsanitary conditions. There is no documented case of a human becoming infected as a result of contact with wild birds. There has been no human to human transmission. While it is very likely that the disease can be transmitted between domestic and wild birds, it is thought that wild birds pick it up from poultry and not the other way around.

How will we know if HPAI H5N1 arrives in North America? State and federal agencies and a large corps of volunteers are monitoring birds throughout the United States and Canada. The most likely entry point would be Alaska, where migratory waterfowl and shorebirds can readily cross the Bering Sea from Asia. So, Alaska and nearby Canada are being intensively monitored, as are the main north/south flyways. The species most at risk for HPAI H5N1 are wild ducks, geese and shorebirds. According to the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, with rare exceptions the thousands of flu isolates found in wild birds have been the low pathogenic variety and have rarely caused signs of illness in the birds. More than 100,000 birds have been tested in the U.S. and Canada this year. According to the USDA, five strategies are being employed: investigation of morbidity/mortality in wild birds; monitoring live, apparently healthy wild birds; monitoring hunter-killed birds; use of sentinel animals; and, environmental sampling of water and bird feces. Our own Hannah Suthers has been contributing to this effort by collecting cloacal swab samples from netted birds at her Featherbed Lane bird banding station for analysis at the UCLA Center for Tropical Research in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University. While data from this sample set is not yet available, it is known that the majority of songbirds are not as commonly infected with any variety of bird flu as are water birds and shorebirds.

What precautions should I take? Because birds can carry a variety of pathogens and parasites, you should always wash your hands thoroughly after handling birds, bird feeders, bird nests, feathers, birdbaths, or water contaminated by bird droppings, even in the absence of bird flu risk. Of course, to minimize the risk of transmission of common diseases among birds, you should keep birdbaths, feeders and the ground beneath feeders clean throughout the feeding season. If you must handle a dead bird, use disposable gloves or handle with plastic bags. USGS cautions if you do touch wildlife, do not rub your eyes, eat, drink or smoke until you have washed your hands thoroughly with soap and water. We believe that, if you follow these precautions, you can feed birds as you usually do and enjoy them all winter long. But keep updated on avian flu and report any unusual numbers of sick or dead birds to your local health officials.

How can I keep updated? There are a number of websites posting current information. We certainly will post any relevant alerts on our own site. Here are some others:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology: www.birds.cornell.edu/birdflu/

USGS National Wildlife Health Center: www.nwhc.usgs.gov/disease_information/avian_influenza

Centers for Disease Control: www.cdc.gov/flu/avian
US Department of Agriculture: www.usda.gov/birdflu

BirdLife International: www.birdlife.org/action/science/species/avian_flu

New Jersey Department of Agriculture: www.nj.gov/agriculture/divisions/ah/diseases/avian_influenza.html

For the latest news from US Fish&Wildlife: http://news.fws.gov


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Last revision: Thursday, October 19, 2006 - 8:10 PM