Alaskan wild bird advocates and chicken owners wary as bird flu outbreak spreads through the Lower 48

Normally, Laura Atwood feels joy when spring in Alaska brings the return of birdsong in and around the Bird Treatment & Learning Center, a rehabilitation center she runs in Anchorage.

This year, with the prospect of a new strain of bird flu hovering over the state, Atwood says she feels a sense of dread instead.

“I was out the other day, and there were like five bald eagles floating above me and chatting with each other,” she said. “Normally that would have made me really happy. And now I just looked up and thought, man, I hope you guys have it in the summer.

Authorities in Alaska have yet to detect any cases of the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus that has killed millions of birds in the lower 48 in recent months.

But experts say based on patterns of migrating birds, it’s likely only a matter of time before the disease reaches statehood – if it’s not already detected here.

The implications could be serious not only for the state’s domestic birds, but also for wild birds including geese, shorebirds, vultures and eagles, according to the Alaska State Veterinarian, Dr. Bob Gerlach.

“It’s very unusual with the fact that it has such a severe impact on wild birds as it does on domestic birds,” Gerlach said this week. “Our big concern is what is the impact on our wild bird population? So wildlife biologists will assess that. But the other big concern is the people with their backyard flocks.

Bird flu is highly contagious, as is COVID-19 or strains of flu that can infect humans. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, transmission to humans or other mammals is very rare – only one human infection with the current H5N1 avian influenza virus was reported in January, involving a person in the UK who had no symptoms.

In birds, influenza presents with a a host of symptoms that include fatigue, swollen comb or wattles, difficulty walking, runny nose and decreased egg production.

Because there is no treatment for infected birds, the virus often means death for some, especially poultry and birds of prey like hawks, eagles or owls. The mortality rate for these birds is extremely high — between 70% and 100% once infected, Gerlach said.

The main spreaders are the migratory geese and ducks that cross the country, leaving highly contagious droppings as they go. So far, countless numbers of at least 51 species of wild birds have died. More than 33 million domestic poultry in the United States in 29 states have died from the virus or had to be euthanized due to possible exposure, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which tracks the spread.

Gerlach said there are two different bird migrations that could bring bird flu to Alaska, and it’s possible contagious birds have already arrived in the state, or soon will.

Wild birds including gulls, sandhill cranes, swans and dabbling ducks have made the trip before, he said.

The virus started in Asia, Gerlach said, and has been detected in northern Kazakhstan and northern Russia.

“So it’s coming from both sides – from the east, from the Lower 48, and from the west, from Asia,” he said.

Trying to Avoid Lower 48 Horror Stories

In Alaska, some backyard chicken owners, a community that has grown exponentially in recent years, are watching with concern the spread of the virus.

Fairbanks resident Amelia Sikes first embraced chickens at the start of the pandemic as a way to keep herself busy while stuck at home all the time. She is happy to have done it.

“They’ve been so fulfilling, like the best pets,” she said of the 11 birds that now make up her flock. “They give me lots of eggs, and one of them, Moira, looks more like a pet chicken than anything.”

But now Sikes is monitoring the progress of bird flu through at least six Facebook groups dedicated to chicken farming. The horror stories she’s seen on social media of Lower 48 chicken owners worry her, especially the experience of a man who lost his entire flock of 50 birds to bird flu.

This is what should happen on farms in Alaska where birds test positive, even if there is only one, says Gerlach. The grim choice to euthanize the birds helps prevent the spread of the virus.

Owners could likely receive “indemnity” payments to help cover the value of any birds that needed to be euthanized, he said.

Sikes said she was already making changes to avoid this worst-case scenario. She recently asked her neighbors to consider taking down the feeders to avoid attracting wild birds, and is aware of the snow her chickens get from outside and the silt from the river they use for baths. of dust.

“I have a covered enclosure, so I’m not too concerned about wild birds entering my birding space,” she said. “But I try to be more aware of the parts of my chickens’ routine that potentially cross that boundary.”

[Bird flu drives free-range hens indoors to protect poultry]

“Let’s protect our birds”

Bird TLC, the rehabilitation center near Potter Marsh, cares for 600 to 800 sick, injured or orphaned birds each year.

Staff recently put in place an extensive mitigation plan to protect incoming birds from influenza which recalls the preventative measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to humans.

Dr. Karen Higgs, a veterinarian at the center, said the workers each had about three pairs of shoes and several outfits to change into when moving around the facility to avoid contamination.

The center is closed to visitors, and two weeks ago they set up a quarantine and isolation area where all bird catches are first tested for bird flu.

Higgs said while she tries not to draw comparisons between avian flu and COVID-19, she thinks the past two years have helped prepare the center for the steps they are now taking to protect their birds.

“I mean, even as simply as, you can talk more about viruses, and when you say ‘viral load’ and how it’s transmitted, there’s a lot of vocabulary that people are familiar with now,” she said. .

At the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, which is home to dozens of seabirds, including various species of ducks and puffins, preparations are underway to protect the birds from possible infections, according to Carrie Goertz, director of animal health. of the Center.

Although many SeaLife Center birds aren’t as likely to get seriously ill from the flu as poultry and raptors, they can often be asymptomatic carriers, Goertz said. The center is therefore seeking to reinforce the nets around its aviaries to limit exposure to other birds.

The center also plans to institute “foot baths” for visitors once cases are identified in Alaska, Goertz said. They plan to increase the frequency of screenings and health tests performed on their birds, she said.

At Bird TLC, veterinarian Higgs said that while the measures taken by the center may seem drastic to some, they spoke to experts in the Lower 48 where bird flu has already arrived to find out what the best practices are and at what point. point this is bad. strain really is.

“Our goal is to protect our birds, protect our patients, and then protect ourselves,” she said.

Precautions for Backyard Flock Owners

• Keep your chickens or ducks away from ponds where waterfowl may be present.

• Keep food away from wild birds or other wildlife.

• Keep poultry under cover or restrict their freedom to avoid contact with wild birds.

• Change clothes and boots before going to another farm or area with birds.

• Do not share equipment and supplies with other bird owners.

• Isolate new birds for 30 days before adding them to your flock.

• Wash hands thoroughly after handling or working with birds. Wear clean clothes and disinfect cages or equipment that come into contact with birds and their droppings.

• When handling and cleaning game, hunters should wear gloves, wash their hands and disinfect knives and equipment used for cleaning. Be careful if you have pet birds at home.

Who to contact

To report illness or death in a backyard flock, contact your local veterinarian or the State Veterinarian’s Office at 907-375-8215.

Alaskans who notice signs of unusual behavior or bird deaths among migratory birds — including disorientation, twitching or shaking, and neck twisting back — can call the state’s Sick or Dead Bird Hotline at 1-866-527-3358, or email

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