Birds

The bird flu outbreak in Alaska is having a particularly heavy impact on eagles and other wild birds

The bird flu outbreak in Alaska is having a particularly heavy impact on eagles and other wild birds

For three days in early May, the Alaska Raptor Center received multiple calls about a bald eagle in Sitka National Historic Park that appeared lethargic and did not fly away even when people approached.

“The first phone call was right, the bird was acting a bit like it had a head injury,” said the center’s avian director, Jennifer Cedarleaf. She thought he might have been hit by a car.

Then the center received a call that the eagle was on the ground and “didn’t look well,” she said.

By the time their in-house vet arrived, the bird was dead.

This eagle was one of the first birds in the state confirmed by subsequent tests to carry H5N1, a strain of a highly pathogenic bird flu virus that has killed thousands of domestic fowl and hundreds of wild birds across the country.

The highly pathogenic bird flu that arrived in the state earlier this month is hitting eagles and other wild birds in Alaska particularly hard while sparing, at least so far, domestic flocks like chickens.

On Friday, at least 12 bald eagles confirmed to carry the virus was dead, as well as eight Canada geese. Authorities also announced on Thursday that the virus had been detected in a red fox in Unalaska, likely because it had fed on an infected dead bird – possibly one of the eagles had also been tested there positive.

Authorities say that given the abundant numbers of eagles and other wild birds here, the virus is unlikely to reduce their numbers.

But this current strain is unusual because of its ability to sicken not just domestic poultry but also wild birds, said Andrew Ramey, director of the Molecular Ecology Laboratory at the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center.

Cases are being detected across the state, from the Aleutians to Mat-Su to Haines and the interior.

“What we’re seeing this year is an unprecedented level of highly pathogenic avian influenza in wild birds,” Ramey said.

Nationwide, nearly 40 million birds have died from infections or exposures in 355 commercial and backyard herds in 35 states so far this year, according to the USDA. At least 1,300 wild birds in 38 states have also been infected, According to the CDC.

During the 2014-2015 bird flu cycle – the last major outbreak of H5N1 – only about 100 wild birds were detected nationwide, Ramey said.

“So it’s very new and different,” he said.

“Now it’s all over the place”

By early May, bird advocates watching the new strain were concerned about backyard flocks. Owners were encouraged to keep their chickens or ducks away from waterfowl in ponds, protect feed from wild birds or other wildlife, and limit freedom among their flocks, among other recommendations.

But within weeks there was an “explosion” of cases, particularly among eagles and geese, said Katie Peterson, avian director of the Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center in Houston.

“It started with a single case in Anchorage,” Peterson said. “And now it’s all over the place.”

Alaska’s vast expanse means many deaths likely go unnoticed.

“We are so scattered that sometimes we walk a mile to save an eagle,” she said. “There are so few people, compared to the large expanse of land we have here, that it’s so much harder to get accurate information.”

The center has stopped accepting new sick, injured or orphaned birds for rehabilitation to protect the birds already living there.

“It’s a very scary time,” Peterson said. “Because if one of our residents (birds) gets it, it’s very likely that all of them will get it, and it could very well kill them all.”

Bird TLC in Anchorage was forced to euthanize five birds – three eagles, a Canada goose and a raven – because they had symptoms consistent with bird flu, according to center spokeswoman Laura Atwood. The birds were mostly brought in by the public or returned from other centres.

Bird TLC has no space to quarantine infected birds from each other, Atwood said, and cannot risk contaminating resident birds.

They have tested most of the birds they take in, even those not showing symptoms of the virus – around 24 in total. Test results for two eagles and a goose have already come back positive.

Better prospects for domestic birds

Officials here say the precautions backyard flock owners have taken to protect their birds appear to have been successful so far.

From the end of May, the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu had been detected in a single backyard flock in Mat-Su.

State veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach has followed confirmed cases of H5N1.

Gerlach recently said owners of chickens and other household birds are “doing a fantastic job of protecting their flocks” and reducing the infection rate. This is promising for poultry displays at fairs and shows later this summer.

Alaskans are also doing a good job reporting potential cases of bird flu, he said.

Many of the 20 wild bird cases in Alaska were identified by members of the public who noticed something was wrong and called the Alaska Sick or Dead Bird Hotline866-527-3358, which is operated by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

“People are aware and reporting, and then getting samples. And the more samples we get, the more reports we get, and we can get a better idea of ​​the distribution of cases in the state,” Gerlach said.

[An orphaned owl returns to the Anchorage wilds]

Unexpected population-level impacts

H5N1 is highly contagious, much like COVID-19 or flu strains that can infect humans. The main spreaders are migrating geese and ducks which leave highly contagious droppings as they move over large areas. Symptoms in infected birds include neurological symptoms, fatigue, swollen combs or wattles, difficulty walking, runny nose, and decreased egg production.

Because there is no treatment, the virus often means death, especially for poultry and raptors like hawks, eagles or owls which show mortality rates between 70% and 100% once infected.

The red fox from Unalaska, where the virus has also been detected in eagles, joins other foxes from Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario in testing positive for the virus, according to the Department of Fisheries and of Alaska hunting. No cases of the H5N1 strain of bird flu have been identified in other domestic or wild mammals, but dogs and cats may be susceptible to it, the agency said this week, recommending pet owners to keep animals away from dead wildlife, including birds.

According the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, transmission to humans or other mammals is very rare – just a human infection with current H5N1 avian influenza viruses was reported in January, involving one person in the UK who had no symptoms.

Ramey said that because this outbreak is new, it’s hard to say how long it could last in Alaska and how many birds could die. But he was optimistic about the overall impact.

“There are certainly many detections, but it’s hard for me to imagine that at the current level of reporting there will be population-level impacts on species that are abundant,” he said. .

“So depressing”

Cedarleaf in Sitka has been having nightmares about dead birds in her yard for the past few weeks. She likes to spend time with her family and her pets, and in the sun, to keep her spirits up.

“We’re doing this because we want to help the birds, and we want to try to get them back into the wild, and not being able to do one of the main parts of our mission is kind of devastating,” she said.

The Raptor Center recently identified two additional birds – also bald eagles – that are likely sick with the virus. Test results, which take about a week to process, have yet to confirm this.

Of the second eagle, Cedarleaf said when she approached the bird, “it got up and was very stumbling and holding its wings to the side, unable to keep its balance very well.”

After the first eagle’s test result came back positive, the center made the difficult decision to stop accepting new birds to protect their resident birds and avoid spreading the virus.

“So basically what we’ve done is euthanize almost everything we pick up,” she said. “It’s so depressing.”

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