Alaska wildlife officials on the lookout for new, deadlier bird flu

Canada goose on the Colville River Delta. (Photo by Ryan Askren, USGS.)
Canada goose on the Colville River Delta. (Photo by Ryan Askren, USGS.)

Alaska bird watchers, harvesters, biologists and veterinarians are all on the lookout for a highly contagious strain of bird flu that’s swept across the U.S. and killed more than 27 million domestic poultry, as well as countless wild birds.

This new bird flu strain has not been detected yet in Alaska, but the spring migration to the state is underway. Officials say it’ll likely show up here, though they’re quick to point out this strain does not seem to pose a serious risk to people.

State Veterinarian Dr. Bob Gerlach is among those anticipating the new bird flu’s arrival in Alaska, and Gerlach says — unlike other states with large-scale poultry farming — the concern in Alaska is instead more for backyard flocks and the wild birds that are a food source for many Alaskans.

Listen:

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Bob Gerlach: Well, in the shorebirds, when it first came into Nova Scotia and that area, the shore birds acted neurologic. So they were trembling, unable to fly or uncoordinated. They actually walked around with a twisted neck or head. And we’re seeing that in some of the other shorebirds and other areas of the United States. In the raptors, they’re seeing, generally, these birds come in, and they are just exhausted, tired. And they have shown neurologic signs as well and then a rapid death after that. With the domestic poultry, it varies, but generally, it’s not uncommon to go ahead and find anywhere from 70 to 90% mortality. And oftentimes, if you have a high dose of the virus, the birds may not show any clinical signs, you just walk in, they look weak or ill or maybe not moving around, and then they rapidly die.

Casey Grove: Wow, that seems pretty troubling to think about, some of the symptoms you’re describing, to see that.

Bob Gerlach: It is very troubling. And when you think about it, from the standpoint of a lot of remote communities that rely on the migratory waterfowl coming in for hunting, there’s a lot of concerns and questions about, “Are they safe to eat?” And basically, it is what we always recommend: Don’t shoot or don’t harvest any birds that are acting abnormal or look abnormal. If you do harvest an animal, go ahead and use gloves when you’re cleaning them. And then cook that to that 165-degree temperature and then just use basic sanitation, which is really good to use for most any of these pathogens that the birds or any game can carry, to protect yourself and your family.

Casey Grove: Have we seen this strain of avian influenza here in Alaska yet?

Bob Gerlach: No, we haven’t. And the one thing that everybody’s focusing on is: “Well, it’s going to come up from the Lower 48, and it’s coming up through Canada,” and we have to remember that we have wild birds coming in from both sides. We have them coming over from Asia, we have them coming up from the south, so we work with our partners in U.S. Fish and Wildlife, USDA Wildlife Services and Alaska Department of Fish and Game that are going out and doing surveillance of birds. And so when the birds come in, and they normally do surveillance for other things, just for the general health of the population and other studies, and during that time period, they are taking avian influenza swabs. And, you know, for the poultry, when we do a swab and people say, “Well, how do you take that?” It’s just like doing a COVID swab for your chickens. We take it in the back of their throat. To do that for the ducks and waterfowl, we’re taking a swab from the back of their throat or the back of the pharynx, as well as a cloacal swab, to go ahead and look for the virus.

Casey Grove: I imagine for a Canada goose that would be a pretty long swab, right? To reach in there?

Bob Gerlach: No, we’re not going very far down the throat. It’s just right to the back of the bill. And so we’re not going to disrupt and cause them any kind of problem, if they’re coughing and things like that.

Casey Grove: Gotcha. Yeah, geese in particular, should I be suspicious of them? Because they’re already kind of rude sometimes. I saw some fly over my house today and I thought, “Oh, you geese are back.” But as far as this flu goes, should I be concerned, I guess, about ducks or geese that I might come into contact with, or my neighbor who has chicken a chicken coop, should she be worried about that?

Bob Gerlach: Yeah, I think for people that, say, if you’re going out hiking around the waterways and you see waterfowl, we always keep some distance and not disturb them. But if you do see a bird or duck or goose that’s acting abnormal, maybe it’s not moving away as you walk toward it, or it’s laying its head down or maybe twitching or trembling, then don’t approach it but contact either the local Fish and Game office or U.S. Fish and Wildlife, so that bird can be examined and we can see if there is a problem. With respect to backyard poultry, the big thing is that we want to try to keep a distance between your poultry and the wild birds. You can keep them indoors or keep them in a covered surface. If they are outside, make sure you’re feeding them where wild birds can’t get to it, so you’re not attracting wild birds. You want to try to keep as big a distance as you can from those wild birds and your poultry.

Casey Grove: So maybe hunker your birds down.

Bob Gerlach: Yeah, that’s a good recommendation.

Casey Grove: As we are seeing migratory birds come back to Alaska, like I saw the geese this morning fly over, is it just an absolute certainty that we’re going to see this avian flu in Alaska?

Bob Gerlach: Well, you know, that’s another good question, because people say, “Well, you’ll definitely find it.” And you think, “Well, once the wild birds get up here, what do they do?” They spread out. And so we don’t know what the prevalence is, or how many, if there was a flock of 100, we don’t know how many may have the virus. We try to collect enough samples with a good statistical certainty and say, “Hey, we have found it or we can’t find it.” And that’s always, up here, a challenge because we want to try to get samples from as many different areas of the state. USDA Wildlife Services is focusing on dabbling ducks because they’re the ones that seem to be have the highest prevalence and exposure. But when you look at what’s happened with this virus, this H5N1 that we’re seeing now, it seems to be really impacting geese. The snow geese, Canadian geese and Ross’s geese in the Lower 48 have had a lot of mortality events. They’ve seen a lot of positive cases there.

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