Avian flu has been ravaging the poultry industry in North America. But it is also killing species of wild birds in ever-increasing numbers. Western biology professor Elizabeth MacDougall-Shackleton explains why this is such a concern, and she provides ways Canadians can help limit the spread of the deadly virus in birds.
MacDougall-Shackleton is an expert in the ecoimmunology and behavioural ecology of migratory birds. Her research looks at how migratory birds’ immune systems and behaviours respond and react to different environmental and ecological conditions.
What is avian flu?
Avian flu is a group of viruses that primarily infects birds. There are always strains of avian flu circulating both in domestic birds such as chickens, and in wild birds.
It’s been a concern for decades, and it recurs seasonally. It’s been a concern from an economic standpoint related to poultry farmers because when chickens get infected with some strains of avian flu they very rapidly die or have to be euthanized. There are economic losses, dangers to food security and there are also dangers to wildlife populations.
What are the most affected industries?
Definitely the poultry industry. In Canada alone, about two million poultry have had to be culled because of infections in flocks.
Is there something new or different about the outbreaks this year?
Avian flu is always circulating and, to some extent, is always jumping between wild migratory birds and domestics birds such as chickens and other poultry. What’s unusual this year is that there are a lot more cases affecting wild species.
What are the ramifications of wild species dying off?
It can be dangerous to species already at risk because of other environmental pressures. There could be losses of local populations, and we potentially might also see extinctions of some species.
Normally, we see avian flu primarily in water birds and in larger birds; we don’t typically see avian flu in songbirds, which are those little backyard birds that you might get at your bird feeder. There have been cases, very sad cases of avian flu killing off raptors, things like bald eagles, many species of hawks, some great horned owls and eider ducks.
How does the avian flu affect birds?
It has symptoms that are fairly similar to rabies in humans. If you saw a bird that was infected with this current strain of avian flu it might appear like its acting weird, like it’s not afraid of you; it doesn’t try to run or fly away and eventually it loses neuromuscular control.
What can be done to limit the spread?
The most important thing people can do is to discourage wild birds from interacting with domestic birds. For example, if you have a backyard flock of chickens you should take down your feeders to discourage other bird species from coming to the area and potentially spreading disease.
If you do have feeders, it is good practice to clean them regularly and there are some types of feeders that are much safer to prevent the transmission of avian flu than others. Hummingbird feeders and oriole feeders are safer compared to feeders that dispense grain or seeds.
A lot of people took in their feeders and took in their bird baths when some state and provincial agencies asked people to do that earlier in spring migration. It is probably safe to put those back out now as long as you clean them and as long as you are able to keep wild birds away from any poultry that you may have.