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Bird flu outbreak: Should you take down feeders?

Bird flu: Map of US with half the states in blue.
Bird flu confirmed locations. The blue states denote locations where the USDA has confirmed HPAI (bird flu) in commercial and backyard poultry flocks between April 1 and 16, 2022. Data via USDA. Image via Kelly Whitt.

A severe strain of bird flu

A highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) – or especially severe bird flu – is causing sickness among both domestic and wild birds across the United States. And experts originally said it was necessary to take down your bird feeders and bird baths, to help stop the spread. The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota tweeted on April 19, 2022, recommending that people in U.S. states with HPAI take bird feeders down for a couple of months this spring, to help decrease the spread of this virus. But then, on April 24, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – home institution of some of the nation’s greatest experts on songbirds – clarified on Facebook that the risk to songbirds is low.

The Cornell Lab had said on April 20 that – unless you keep domestic poultry – you probably don’t have to worry about taking down feeders in your yard. The greatest known risk from this virus – so far – is to chickens, turkeys, and other poultry. So you wouldn’t want to invite any bird that might be carrying the bird flu to get close to your chicken coop, the Lab said.

Humans not at risk

This avian influenza does not pose any risk to humans, and there are no human cases of avian influenza viruses in the United States. But the virus can be deadly in some birds.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported that HPAI viruses, including the current strain named H5N1, do cause high mortality in poultry and occasionally have been known to cause high death rates in certain species of wild birds. Waterfowl, shorebirds and seabirds are most likely to carry and shed the virus without showing signs of illness. Raptors, such as eagles, owls and hawks, are the most likely to get sick quickly and die from the virus. So you can see why The Raptor Center was originally so concerned about being careful.

However, the effect on songbirds is less well known. That’s because this group has fewer studies and monitoring.

Bird flu: Small red-throated bird sits on pink bird feeder.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Nancy Reeves in Emerson, Georgia, took this image on April 14, 2022. Thank you, Nancy!

Bird flu in poultry

This spring, the virus has been turning up in poultry populations across the country. In Pennsylvania, one commercial operation with almost 1 1/2 million chickens identified HPAI in their flock, resulting in a 6-mile (10-kilometer) quarantine. Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said that there is no concern for humans. He also said:

However, wild birds carry the virus and do not respect property or state lines.

The Conversation reported that, as of early April, the H5N1 outbreak caused the culling of some 23 million domesticated chickens and turkeys from Maine to Wyoming.

Bird flu in raptors, waterfowl and other birds

The Raptor Center is monitoring their local wildlife populations for positive cases of avian influenza in what they call an “unprecedented outbreak” in the U.S. All birds are susceptible to HPAI, though they may not show symptoms. Birds pass on this virus to others through feces and respiratory secretions. Furthermore, the cold doesn’t stop it. The virus can survive for weeks in cool, damp environments.

Victoria Hall of The Raptor Center said:

The 2022 outbreak is unique because of the very high levels of transmission of the currently circulating H5N1 virus strain in wildlife. With minimal viral surveillance being done with songbirds, it is hard to measure the risk of transmission from songbirds to other birds.

The Raptor Center is testing birds such as bald eagles and owls every day for HPAI. HPAI produces intense suffering from fatal neurological illness in these birds. At the moment, euthanasia is the only tool people have to help the birds.

Person in white hazmat suit holds a bald eagle.
Dana Franzen-Klein of The Raptor Center holds an eagle after testing it for HPAI. Image via University of Minnesota.

How you can help birds

The researchers at The Raptor Center originally recommended pausing the use of bird feeders and bird baths to keep birds from congregating in these locations and spreading the virus. Their feeling was that – since they don’t have all the data – taking that step would at least slow the transmission if at all possible. As Hall said:

Because the science is unclear on the role of songbirds in this current H5N1 outbreak, one consideration is to not encourage birds to gather together at places such as bird feeders or bird baths. These are places where things like viruses could easily be exchanged between individuals.

But the Cornell Lab said the next day:

There is currently very low risk of an outbreak among wild songbirds, and no official recommendation to take down feeders unless you also keep domestic poultry, according to the National Wildlife Disease Program. We do always recommend that you clean bird feeders and birdbaths regularly as a way to keep many kinds of diseases at bay.

We will update this page as the situation develops.

Long-necked white birds with black wingtips flying in a flock.
Migratory waterfowl, like these snow geese, are the most common carriers of avian influenza. Image by Linda Chittum/Macaulay Library/ Cornell Lab.

Bottom line: A highly pathogenic avian influenza is spreading among U.S. birds. Researchers originally recommended taking down bird feeders and baths for a couple of months, then clarified that this step is primarily necessary if you keep poultry.

Via University of Minnesota

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