Wildlife groups work to protect wild and at-risk birds against deadly avian flu

'We are receiving calls daily about animals that are suspected to have the virus'

Stephanie Babych 4 minute read April 26, 2022

Birds sit in a cage waiting to be sent to a slaughterhouse for extermination due to the avian flu outbreak that began in late November, at a farm in Doazit, southwestern France, on January 26, 2022. GAIZKA IROZ/AFP via Getty Images

The health team at the Wilder Institute and Calgary Zoo is keeping many of its bird species indoors, as the team workw to protect the animals from a highly pathogenic version of avian flu that’s spreading in Alberta.

The zoo isn’t the only wildlife organization implementing increased safety measures in an effort to help wild bird populations through the spread of the H5N1 strain. With migration season in full swing, there’s a concern for the health of wild birds that flock together like waterfowl.

“Highly pathogenic avian influenza can affect multiple bird species, and it has a really high illness and death rate associated with it. . . so that’s why we’re so concerned,” said Dr. Doug Whiteside, the zoo’s new senior manager of animal health.

The Wilder Institute and Calgary Zoo’s avian flu protocols were triggered when the first case was confirmed within 100 kilometres of the zoo grounds earlier this month. All birds and pig species that can be moved inside were moved indoors to keep them from interacting with wild birds.

“In cases where we couldn’t move them in completely, then we are trying to make sure we do things to exclude wild birds from getting to them. That would be making sure there’s no interaction at their food dishes, making sure there are no water areas where ducks and geese might want to congregate,” Whiteside said.

Zoo officials have also covered any mesh with wide gaps with finer mesh to prevent the birds from mingling. They’ll be monitoring any wild birds on zoo grounds to watch for symptoms or death.

“We have a number of our bird species at the zoo that are threatened by extinction, and so we wanted to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to ensure their safety,” Whiteside said.

The Edmonton Valley Zoo has also moved birds indoors and away from public sight.

Visitors, staff and delivery people at the Calgary Zoo will also be asked if they’ve been around live chickens, turkeys, ducks or geese in the week before their visit, and could be deterred from entering. The zoo will refund admissions to anyone who has come to the zoo with clothing or shoes that have been worn around live poultry.

“That’s the way we try to limit it from coming in on people,” said Whiteside.

The bird flu has heavily impacted the Alberta poultry industry, with producers recording more than 166,000 farm birds dead or culled by mid-April.

The crew at the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation, located in Madden (about a 40-minute drive north of Calgary), has been quarantining birds to screen for the virus within their facilities and monitor new admissions, which is stretching resources and space during an already busy time of the year.

Holly Lillie, the executive director of the institute, said on-site testing isn’t available to wildlife centres and there’s no cure for the birds.

“We are receiving calls daily about animals that are suspected to have the virus and we’re also admitting animals that are suspected of having the virus,” she said. “All that we can do for those animals, unfortunately, is provide humane euthanasia.”

They are then sent for testing and the results take several days.

They’ve had one goose test positive for the virus, but they’ve also received several other geese, a great-horned owl and a magpie with symptoms that were sent for testing. Symptoms of the flu include swollen eyes, nose and eye discharge, muscle tremors, jerky movements, drooping wings and poor balance.

“If you have pet chickens or ducks or anything like that, you really do want to make sure that you’re reading up as much as you can so that you’re protecting your flock, as well,” Lillie said.

Cliff Wallis, director of the Alberta Wilderness Association, encourages people to take down their bird feeders and birdbaths.

“Feeders are kind of more for our interest in watching things that may come into our backyards,” said Wallis. “It’s with that concentration of birds where it’s most likely to get transferred.”

People can report dead or sick birds to the Alberta Environment and Parks Office at 310-0000.

sbabych@postmedia.com
Twitter: @BabychStephanie

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