NORTHWOODS WILDLIFE RESCUE: What is avian flu and which kind of birds catch it?
Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) is an extremely contagious type A influenza virus.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service lists chickens, turkeys, captive pheasants, quail, waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans) – both domestic and wild –, corvids (crows, jays, ravens) and great blue herons as the species most susceptible to the virus.
The most recent data shows wild birds in 31 states have tested positive for HPAI so far this season.
The Raptor Center of the University of Minnesota has reported 16 great horned owls, 13 bald eagles, 7 red-tailed hawks and 1 barred owl as testing positive for the virus.
The USDA reports that 2 mallards in Anoka County and 1 great horned owl in Houston County have tested positive for the virus.
The Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Animal Health are collaborating to gather and share information regarding poultry and wild bird HPAI infections in the state.
Symptoms of concern
We are getting many calls and questions about what to do with sick, injured and dead birds.
The DNR is tasked with receiving and addressing sick and dead wild bird reports, if circumstances or symptoms are consistent with HPAI.
Of particular concern are five or more deaths in the same area and timeframe.
Some symptoms of HPAI are birds that are unable to fly, are lethargic, are not eating, unable to hold their head up, swim or walk in circles.
Birds with the virus may show no symptoms.
Dead birds, especially raptors and waterfowl with no explanation or obvious signs of injury would be of concern. Birds meeting the criteria for testing will be sent to The National Wildlife Health Center or to the Minnesota Diagnostic Laboratory.
Up-to-date information on confirmed cases of HPAI can be found at this USGS website: https://www.usgs.gov/centers/nwhc/science/distribution-highly-pathogenic-avian-influenza-north-america-20212022 .
What this means for wildlife rehabilitatorsThis virus has presented serious difficulties for wildlife rehabilitators.
The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota and several other licensed rehabilitation centers have made the difficult decision to suspend intake of any susceptible and sensitive species. The centers simply cannot risk infecting the other patients at the facility.
The Raptor Center has taken precautions, including remodeling the center to allow for quarantine areas and safe separation of birds.
Birds entering a center must be tested immediately. The bird must then be quarantined for varying periods and tested between two to three more times before they are allowed into the general population. The cost of each test is approximately $30 to $40. Because most centers rely on personal funds and donations this added cost makes intaking birds very difficult or impossible.
Should I take down my bird feeders?
There are differing opinions on this. Currently, the DNR is not requiring removal of bird feeders. Currently, we do not know of reports or evidence of wild songbirds (passerines) being infected. However, because we are here in the beautiful Northwoods you should consider taking down the feeders if you want to avoid visits from bears.
Baby chicks as pets
The chicks are in the feed stores. It is difficult to resist giving one or two of the little fluff balls to your children or grandchildren.
This creates several difficult outcomes.
Chicks and ducks raised as pets will not survive if released to the wild as juveniles or adults. This year, especially, we ask people to refrain from this, as these birds are at high risk for contracting the virus and spreading the virus to other birds.
Each spring, rehabbers get single chicks and whole families from well-intended animal lovers who fear they have been abandoned.
Unless injured, it is rare for wild animals to abandon their babies. Sometimes, especially with wood ducks, the family can get separated. Given time and opportunity they will usually reunite on their own.
Wood ducks sometimes have one or two stragglers in the box or tree that make the jump after mom has already escorted the rest of the family to the nearest water. Generally, with a little effort they can be successfully reunited.
It is important that waterfowl not be intentionally moved to different lakes or rivers as this may spread the virus.
What you can do
If you observe an injured bird or a bird that appears sick, do not handle the bird.
There is no evidence of transference of the virus to people, but it is a zoonotic disease. Call a licensed rehabber or the DNR for guidance.
Please understand that many of the centers will not be able to accept the bird into their care. This is as hard for them as it is for the people finding the bird.
If you find a dead bird – wear gloves and place the bird into a plastic bag. Report suspicious deaths to the DNR at 888-646-6367. If they advise you to dispose of the bird, it can be buried, incinerated or double-bagged and placed into the trash or taken to the dump. It is important to locate and properly dispose of the dead birds.
Raptors contract the virus after eating an infected bird. If they take the carcass back to their nest, the babies will likely also become infected. This virus is almost always fatal.
The USDA has more information on their website: https://ask.usda.gov/s/article/what-is-avian-influenza .
Julie Dickie is a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator in northern Minnesota. Her nonprofit organization, Northwoods Wildlife Rescue, captures and releases all manner of wounded creatures. Julie and her husband, Jeff, are unpaid volunteers.