Ready to Handle the Threat of Avian Flu at our Wildlife Centers

Bird Rescue Wildlife Technician Ben Walker, intakes a recent patient in a screening tent at the San Francisco Bay-Delta Wildlife Center, using HPAI safety protocols. Photo by Mackenzie Preble

There’s a new deadly threat facing North America’s wild birds: a new strain of avian influenza, called Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) Eurasian strain H5N1 This strain is different from other avian influenza strains that have long plagued the poultry industry in its lethality to many wild bird species.

This virus has been spreading around the globe for the past decade and finally reached the east coast of North America this past winter. It has been thankfully slow to hit the southwestern United States. Unfortunately, July 15, 2022 was the first detection of the strain within California, affecting two Canada Geese and an American White Pelican at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

Signs of HPAI Across the U.S.

On January 14, 2022, USDA announced finding H5N1 bird flu in an American Wigeon in South Carolina, marking the first detection of this virus in wild birds in the United States since 2016. Source: CDC

Elsewhere in the U.S., our wildlife rehabilitation colleagues have seen large numbers of eagles, vultures, geese, owls, hawks, and corvids with the disease. Deaths in the wild attributed to this disease have also included a large number of species we commonly count as patients: Brown Pelicans, Canada Geese, gannets, shorebirds, gulls, and many more. Dabbling ducks such as Mallards, Gadwalls, and teals may be asymptomatic carriers of the disease. Songbirds are not considered to be at high risk.

This HPAI virus is not considered to be a high risk to humans, but it is highly-contagious among birds. It can be carried from place to place on human shoes and clothing, even on vehicle tires. Crowded conditions at breeding areas and other areas where wild birds congregate are spots where they are at high risk of this disease spreading and causing mass mortality. Unfortunately, like West Nile Virus when it hit North American birds in the early 2000s, this strain may be a problem for years to come and may wax and wane in any given region. We hope it doesn’t wreck havoc in North America’s threatened and endangered species.

New Protocols to Keep Current Bird Patients Safe

International Bird Rescue has already put protocols in place to protect our current clinic patients and to reduce the likelihood of infected birds entering our facilities. These protections include outdoor screening of new birds, staff wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) when screening incoming waterbirds for HPAI symptoms, laboratory testing as needed, and reorganizing interior spaces to minimize cross-contamination. Also, to protect our patients, until further notice, our facilities are closed to the public.

Bird Rescue is encouraging the public to be educated and aware that HPAI is a serious and deadly bird virus. Learn more about avian influenza at this CDC website. If a rescuer of a wild bird has domestic birds at home (chickens, ducks, and turkeys), special care is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus between birds. Do not expose the birds to any clothing or objects that have had contact with the other.

The HPAI virus can be spread through a bird’s saliva, mucus and feces, and the most common symptoms in wild birds are neurologic or respiratory abnormalities such as seizures, tremors, or respiratory distress. Although the virus is relatively fragile and susceptible to disinfectants such as dilute bleach and others labeled against influenza viruses, it survives well enough to be transmitted by contaminated inanimate objects such as vehicle tires, equipment, and shoes. The virus remains environmentally viable much longer at colder temperatures and in wetter, freshwater conditions than in dryer, hotter, saltier conditions.

For information on keeping domestic birds safe, see information pages on the USDA website.

What Can You Do?

Going forward, public is encouraged to follow these steps to help stop the spread of HPAI:

  • Be especially careful if you work around and/or have backyard domestic fowl (chickens, ducks, and turkeys). A second set of clothing and shoes for this work should be used, to avoid cross-contamination. Changing your clothing and shoes both at arrival and departure from the worksite could drastically reduce the risks.
  • Protect yourself: If you find a sick bird, wear gloves and a mask. Wash your hands after handling any birds.
  • Bird feeders. Although songbirds and hummingbirds have a lower risk of becoming ill from HPAI, feeders should be cleaned and disinfected at least weekly due to risks of spreading other diseases (salmonella, mycoplasma, avian pox, etc). Responsibly managed feeders can be a wonderful way to enjoy the beauty of local birds.
  • If you find a sick or dead bird and suspect HPAI,  please alert California Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) via its mortality reporting website.
  • New: California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is recommending “housing poultry inside and discouraging any interaction with wild birds, particularly migrating or resident waterfowl and raptors.” Read full CDFA statement here

Please note: Bird Rescue wildlife clinics will remain open to continue to accept waterbird patients at both of its California centers. If you’re dropping off birds at our centers, you will be directed to where to meet staff to accept the bird and advised of intake protocols to follow to keep both birds and humans safe.

Please be patient and understanding of the extra workload, stress, and strain this disease is having on our staff and volunteers. We will continue to do our best to care for our patients despite whatever challenges come our way. Thank you for helping us help birds in this changing world!

More HPAI Information

In addition to the links above also see these websites:

Avian Influenza Updates: California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA)
Bird Flu Virus Infections in Humans, Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
North American Birds Face Their Own Pandemic, Audubon Magazine

Kadi Erickson, Wildlife Technician, left, at the Los Angeles Center, along with Manager Kylie Clatterbuck, examine a incoming Western Gull patient on July 21, 2022. Photo by Ariana Gastelum