Last Call with Andrew Vitz, state ornithologist

Flu season may be almost past for humans but for birds it’s in full swing, with about 35.52 million birds affected nationwide, according to the USDA. While domestic farm birds are among the most at risk, biologists are also concerned about the effect on birds of prey, particularly bald eagles. The infection rates for our national bird has been steadily climbing. This is bad news for Worcester County on both fronts, with many residents having backyard chicken coops as well as a recovering population of eagles. State ornithologist Andrew Vitz with Mass Wildlife, whose office is based in Westborough, sat down with Last Call to discuss how this national issue is affecting our local feathered friends.

Have there been any cases recorded in Massachusetts?

You’d think that would be a straightforward question to answer but it’s complicated by preliminary and final results. We have quite a few preliminary positive cases that are still being analyzed, but with that said, we have 13 individuals that have been confirmed as positive for the H1N1 variant — it’s a bunch of geese more than anything, as well as some shore birds. We do have one red tailed hawk and a turkey vulture. However, we have a number of different species, including raptors, in the preliminary list and every week there are more birds being tested.

What’s the difference between preliminary and final?

Any samples we get that are suspicious initially go to Tufts. If they test positive, that’s a preliminary and it goes on to the federal lab in Iowa, which is overwhelmed, for a final confirmation. Unfortunately, that means there’s a long gap between the preliminary positive and the final result that can go on for weeks.

Why are bald eagles more at risk?

Bald eagles seem particularly susceptible to this. What we think is going on here, is that bald eagles are scavenging birds in the winter and spring months when food is scarce. Like I said, geese have been hit hard by this virus, and a sick or dead goose would look awfully tempting to an eagle, so they’re ingesting a more concentrated form of the virus.

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