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.
Right now, there aren’t any cases in the state but there were at least three in Vermont six days ago and one in New Hampshire.
So do eagles scavenge more than other raptors?
Yes, they’re more of a scavenger than most other raptors and the reason they test positive is the same reason as turkey vultures, who are testing positive in large numbers. Both species scavenge more than other raptors. In fact, other species like coopers or red tailed hawks seldom scavenge.
Eagle populations are just starting to recover in Massachusetts and if the virus flares up here, would it jeopardize that recovery?
I will say that here in Massachusetts, we are seeing an uptick in the number of active nests this year so despite the potential damage from the virus, we’re so far seeing a rise in the general population.
How do you track cases?
We have been working closely with permitted wildlife rehabilitators, so when sick or dead birds come in, we’ve been working with them to get samples in for testing. They’ve been really instrumental in figuring out where these impacts are happening. A lot of birds are asymptomatic when they have this virus and a good number of them have been passively sampled and tested positive.
Is there any way to rehabilitate?
There haven’t been a lot of attempts at rehabilitation. If a bird is highly suspect or positive, it spreads too easily, and the rehabilitators will just euthanize it to limit spread. If they’re highly symptomatic, there are neurological effects so many wouldn’t survive at that stage.
Even if a valuable species tests positive, but is asymptomatic?
Potentially, but it would have to be a case-by-case basis. But at the population level, we don’t think this is going to have a big impact and we think this is the case with other wild species as well. The concern is largely with domestic birds but nonetheless we have a lot of backyard as well as industrial flocks, so we’re definitely concerned with those groups and trying to limit the spread.
What advice would you give to backyard chicken farmers?
For backyard flocks, you’re going to want to keep your domestic birds separate from any wild birds. You want to avoid attracting wild birds to your yard. Maybe even a bigger concern is if you have a couple kids at the school playing soccer and there’s goose droppings at the field, that could be brought back to your birds. You might want to keep your outside shoes separate — this virus survives for a substantial amount of time that can be measured in weeks. However, the hope is that as summer arrives, the avian flu doesn’t do well in the warmer and drier conditions. I will say, the recent strain we’re dealing with, we’re not entirely sure but it will probably decrease my rate. This strain has been in Asia and Europe for over a year now, so it has survived at least one summer and come back in the fall. Most evidence indicates that it was brought over by a wild bird.
Have there been any outbreaks in Worcester county chicken coops?
No, just a single incident in Berkshire County so at this point we’re keeping our fingers crossed. It seems like the number of symptomatic wild birds has been declining over recent weeks so we’re hoping that trend continues.