PLEASE TAKE NOTE: The Avian Influenza that is mentioned in this piece is NOT the “Asian Bird Flu” that has resulted in human illness and deaths in Asia and other continents. The three novel strains currently involved in this outbreak in North America have not caused any human issues to date.
After over a decade long battle with West Nile Virus and its impact on raptors in the US and our service area, another virus has arrived with potentially more lethal effects than WNV. High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) arrived in North America via migrating waterfowl in late 2014 has quickly spread along migratory bird corridors of the Pacific, Central and Mississippi flyways. Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza (LPAI) has been in North America and is endemic in wild bird populations and causes only mild illness or no illness at all in wild birds. HPAI is a different story. Wild waterfowl are asymptomatic (show no illness) thus are just reservoirs for the HPAI virus.
HPAI is responsible for high morbidity (illness) and high mortality in poultry. Commercial and backyard poultry flocks from the West coast to the Midwest have been incurring losses due to this outbreak of HPAI. Backyard poultry flocks that use water sources where wild waterfowl have access, can be vulnerable to HPAI since the virus is shed in wild bird droppings. Since the HPAI virus can live for extended periods of time in the environment (under certain conditions) it can be tracked from place to place on things like shoes, clothing, pets, pests and vehicles. These are considered fomites. This is where Commercial poultry industry is probably most at risk since the vast majority of the industry maintains their flocks indoors and under secure conditions and don’t co-mingle with waterfowl.
How vulnerable are raptors? Mortality in raptors during this outbreak has been pretty well documented. Several falconry birds in the outbreak areas have died after being fed the flesh of infected wild waterfowl. The onset of illness and subsequent death in raptors can be a relatively short period of time. Several wild raptors have been found dead and tested positive for HPAI. The overall impact on wild raptors is yet to be seen. Since raptors lead pretty solitary lives (except on migration in the fall), it is hard to track how many are being directly impacted. This outbreak is ongoing and so much remains unknown.
Staff at the RMRP has been following this situation since the beginning of December when it first started in British Columbia and have been planning for the arrival of HPAI ever since. Just recently a wild Canada goose that was found near Cheyenne, WY tested positive for HPAI.
Bio-security is a normal part of everyday life here at the RMRP. When dealing with wild animals on a day to day basis, you always have to be cognizant of potential disease issues. Add in over 100 volunteers that throughout the year have bouts with the flu and colds, washing hands and other hygiene protocols to prevent transmission of illness are always in place.
To help protect our center we have enhanced our Bio-security levels to include sanitizing foot baths in several locations in our building and satellite facility at the Environmental Learning Center. Added disinfection of other critical areas has also been added.
We have also had to make modifications to our food donation protocols. We are no longer accepting wild waterfowl or any backyard poultry donations to feed our birds. Since there is no way of knowing for sure whether any of this meat is infected, we have to err on the side of safety.
In the meantime it is business as usual for us…..with some changes and caveats. Enhanced monitoring of all the birds (rehab and educational) is in place. We have established isolation protocols for all neurological cases where a suspect bird can be kept until testing can confirm a positive or negative result. Visitors to our center may be required to walk through a foot bath and certain areas for tours will no longer be able accessed as they were previously.
Life goes on and at present baby season is in full swing and we are getting busier and busier every day. Regardless of what comes our way, we will continue to give every raptor the best care that it needs and deserves every single day.