Alberta conservation organizations concerned about how wild birds will cope with avian flu

Some conservation organizations in Alberta are worried about how avian flu will affect their operations in the coming weeks as they head into their busiest time of year.

Six birds exhibiting flu symptoms were brought to the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation last week

In this Nov. 18, 2012 file photo, a Canada goose takes off from a pond in Hutchinson, Kan. One conservation organization in Alberta had five geese brought to it last week that had symptoms of avian flu. (Lindsey Bauman/the Hutchinson News via Associated Press)

Some conservation organizations in Alberta are worried about how avian flu will affect their operations in the coming weeks as they head into their busiest time of year.

The Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation (AIWC), based northwest of Calgary in the hamlet of Madden, had some "suspicious cases" brought to them in the past week, executive director Holly Lillie told CBC News.

Five Canada geese and one great horned owl were brought to the rehabilitation and rescue centre displaying indications of the highly pathogenic avian influenza strain H5N1, or bird flu, symptoms of which include swollen eyes, nose and eye discharge, muscle tremors, drooping wings and poor balance.

Vaccines for bird flu do not protect against all strains, and the virus has a mortality rate as high as 90 per cent, according to the AIWC. The birds brought to them were euthanized and sent for testing.

"It's very obvious, the symptoms that we're seeing," said Lillie. "Our biggest concerns are risking the lives of the patients we already have in care."

The food industry is already seeing outbreaks of bird flu ⁠— about 166,000 birds have been euthanized or killed by the virus in Alberta since late 2021.

To avoid outbreaks at the AIWC, Lillie said staff have increased cleaning protocols and the use of personal protective equipment. They are also assessing animals that come to their site outside or in a separate building.

"Animals are not coming into our main hospital until we're as confident as we can be that there's little or no risk of them having the virus," she said.

Still evolving

Colin Weir, managing director of the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation in Coaldale, east of Lethbridge, said they haven't seen any cases of wild birds infected with avian flu yet, but that it will remain a concern through the summer. 

"It's just a big question mark and nobody knows what it's going to be like until it happens," Weir said.

For now, the situation at the AIWC is under control, but Lillie said it could put a different level of pressure on the institute as it moves into its busiest time of the year, May to September.

"We're really worried about how that will impact our operations and our ability to care well for animals during that time if it is still a concern."

The AIWC has been receiving several calls a day about birds in distress that possibly have avian flu, in addition to usual calls about injured and orphaned wildlife. Spring migration of birds, already underway, could increase transmission of the disease as well.

"It's really heartbreaking to hear of these animals that people are finding in their gardens [and] in the middle of roads," said Lillie.

She advised people with poultry or pet birds to be familiar with symptoms of bird flu and to take special precautions to prevent its spread, guidance for which can be found on the government of Alberta's website.

Sick or dead birds should be reported to the Alberta Environment and Parks Office at 310-0000.