Bird feeders can help spread deadly avian flu, cautions N.S. wildlife biologist
'Removing feeders will help stop the virus from spreading,' says wildlife biologist Elizabeth Walsh
Sorry, bird lovers, you need to put away your feeders.
That's the advice from a Nova Scotia Lands and Forestry wildlife biologist now that the province is dealing with a deadly strain of avian flu.
"We can protect birds by not using backyard bird feeders," said Elizabeth Walsh, who is based in Coxheath, near Sydney.
"Removing feeders will help stop the virus from spreading. I do realize people enjoy their feeders. However, as a bird lover, we also want to be making sure that … our wild populations are safe."
The highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N1, was first confirmed in a wild goose in Halifax County on Jan. 28.
After that, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed its presence in a turkey flock on a farm in western Nova Scotia. All of the farm's 12,000 turkeys died — some from the virus, while the rest were culled to help prevent further spread.
"It does pose a threat to both the domestic poultry as well as wild birds," said Walsh. "Because when birds do congregate at sites, they can spread the infection through their feces and other bodily fluids from their respiratory tract."
Since the wild goose tested positive in late January, three more dead wild birds from Nova Scotia — in Halifax and Hants counties — were confirmed to have had avian flu as of March 10.
Dr. Megan Jones, a veterinarian who is the regional director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative in Charlottetown, said a group of wild, live ducks in Hants County were tested for avian flu. She said several tested positive.
The Atlantic provinces send dead, wild birds to that organization for testing.
Jones said her group has been testing dead birds for avian influenza since 2005.
"What's different right now is that we're actually getting positive results, which in the past we haven't," she said. "In Atlantic Canada, at least, we haven't had this highly pathogenic avian influenza show up."
Both Walsh and Jones mentioned an outbreak of avian flu that killed more than 5,000 migratory cranes in Israel in late 2021 as a worst-case scenario. That outbreak also forced farmers to slaughter hundreds of thousands of chickens.
Although wild birds from all four Atlantic provinces have tested positive for avian flu, there's been no large die-off in this region yet.
"It's a significant disease, but it does appear to be relatively sporadic and I'm not concerned about population-level events at this point unless something changes," said Jones. "That's why we're continuing to do surveillance and rely a lot on members of the public to report any unusual mortality."
What precautions people can take
Walsh said that anyone who comes across a sick or dead bird in Nova Scotia should not touch it. They should instead report it to the provincial Natural Resources Department at 1-800-565-2224 and someone from the department wearing protective clothing will pick it up.
There's a very low risk of humans getting sick from avian flu, but it's recommended that people don't handle sick or dead birds as a general precaution.
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