Although there’s not much you can do to protect against the spread of bird flu among wild birds, authorities are asking people to remove their feeders and birdbaths.
Doug Morin, bird project manager and wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, said these areas are where birds concentrate and come into contact with the droppings of other birds.
“We try to encourage anything to reduce the spread,” he said. “That’s a concern for poultry producers.”
Morin said avian flu, or bird flu, is a virus that originated in Asia a few years ago.
“We’ve seen it a few times in North America, most recently around 2015, and there are a variety of strains,” he said.
This year is different, Morin said, because the strain is considered highly pathogenic rather than low pathogenic. This is concerning because it describes the impact on birds, especially domestic poultry.
Morin said that in Vermont, the virus has been confirmed to be in waterfowl, some scavenger birds — which could be eagles, turkeys, vultures and crows — and even some songbirds.
“So it can potentially be in any wild bird,” he said. “Generally, it still won’t cause as much death or disease in wild birds.”
Some wild birds have died from the virus, Morin said. However, there is more concern about finding it in domestic poultry as it can cause large-scale deaths.
Morin said the state steps in when a domestic bird contracts the virus.
“Typically the whole flock is slaughtered,” he said, citing an incident with about 25 or 30 chickens in Caledonia County. He noted that other states have seen larger outbreaks due to the size of their herds.
In January, the first case was reported in North America. In March, Vermont reported its first.
“Some of the strains have been circulating widely in Europe for a few years,” Morin said. “So we expected it to happen at some point and this is the year it happened.”
Morin estimated that the United States has about 38 million domestic fowl. He said the virus can jump to humans, although it’s not common. This usually occurs when a person is heavily exposed to a very large number of virus-infected birds, such as a worker in a poultry facility.
The United States has reported one case of a human who tested positive for the virus, Morin said, describing it as a mild case. He said juvenile foxes in the Midwest recently tested positive for the virus.
“But overall it doesn’t seem to transmit well outside of birds,” he added.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife keeps its scope limited to wild birds. For domestic birds, the Agriculture Agency makes recommendations to owners. Any unexplained death should be reported to the agency.
Morin said he’s been keeping the chickens at his house closed for about six weeks to limit their exposure to wild birds. He noted that farms where the virus has emerged in New England tend to have ponds, which he says creates “a perfect situation for disease transmission.”
The public was asked to submit reports of apparently sick or dead birds to their department. Depending on the condition and location, the department will perform tests.
So far, the virus has been confirmed in three Vermont counties: Caledonia, Chittenden and Grand Isle. However, Morin said, the virus is presumed to be widespread and present in all counties.
At the time of the interview, 38 US states had confirmed cases. Morin said the virus was just beginning to spread on the West Coast.
In 2015, a similar trend was observed. Morin said the virus appeared in the south in winter, then in the north during bird migration.
During this period, he said, the spread “started to slow and falter in June.” He suggested the possibility that birds are shedding more or that the heat is less conducive to virus transmission.
“We’re all keeping our fingers crossed that things calm down after June,” he said.
Morin noted how in Europe the virus has become more endemic than seasonal.
“It comes and goes,” he said, “but it doesn’t take years off the last two years.”