By Steve Galea
Wild birds are playing a key role in the spread of a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in Ontario this spring.
HPAI, more commonly known as bird flu, was detected in March near Waterloo in a wild red-tailed hawk that appeared ill. At press time, the virus has also been detected in 10 other locations, the closest to Haliburton County being Selwyn township. There, the virus was detected in a backyard flock of chickens, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) cautions that this HPAI outbreak is “rapidly evolving” and says it expects more detected cases over the following weeks as migratory birds return to their northern haunts. HPAI is highly transmissible and poses the greatest threat to domestic poultry, where it can cause high rates of disease and mortality.
Infected birds may show lack of energy, movement or appetite, decreased egg production, swelling around the head, neck and eyes, coughing, gasping for air or sneezing, nervous signs, tremors or lack of coordination, diarrhea or sudden death.
The CWS recommends that members of the public should not handle live wild birds or those found dead. If contact with wild birds is unavoidable, the CWS advises to wear gloves or use a doubled plastic bag and to avoid contact with blood, body fluids and feces. This should be followed by a thorough hands washing with soap and warm water.
There have been no known cases of avian influenza being transferred from wild birds to humans. Most human cases of avian influenza worldwide have resulted from close contact with infected poultry or their contaminated environments.
The CWS says HPAI viruses have infected more than 100 species of wild birds worldwide, but infections are most common among water birds such as ducks, geese, swans, gulls, and shorebirds, which are considered the natural reservoir for avian influenza viruses. Most wild birds infected with HPAI remain asymptomatic, but mortality events involving wild birds have resulted from this strain. There is evidence that raptors and some scavenger species are susceptible to mortality from the virus.
The CWS asks those who observe sick or dead birds and suspect that disease may be involved, contact the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at 866-673-4781 or report online at cwhc.wildlifesubmissions.org
Regarding bird feeding, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change is advising people not to handle or feed any wild bird by hand.
They also acknowledge that feeding encourages wild birds to congregate around food sources and can increase the probability of transmission among wild birds, both within and among species. Having said that they still say the use of bird feeders is safe but advise to remove feeders from areas that are open to poultry and other domestic animals. They also advise those who care for poultry to prevent contact between wild birds and poultry by removing exterior/outdoor sources of food, water and shelter that attract wild birds.
Also, they advise to use a weak solution of domestic bleach (10 per cent sodium hypochlorite) to clean bird feeders. Ensure they are well rinsed and dried before re-use.