Update, Saturday, April 30: The first case of avian flu in Alaska was identified in a Mat-Su backyard flock. Read more here.
Normally, Laura Atwood feels joy as spring in Alaska brings the return of birdsong in and around the Bird Treatment & Learning Center, a rehabilitation facility she directs in Anchorage.
This year, with the prospect of a new strain of avian influenza hovering over the state, Atwood says she feels a sense of dread instead.
“I was out the other day, and there was like, five bald eagles floating above me and chattering to each other,” she said. “Normally, that would have made me really happy. And now I just looked up and thought, man, I hope you guys make it through the summer.”
Alaska authorities have yet to detect any cases of the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu viruses that have led to the deaths of millions of birds across the Lower 48 in recent months.
But experts say that based on migratory bird patterns, it’s probably only a matter of time before the disease reaches the state — if it’s not here undetected already.
The implications could be serious for not only the state’s domestic birds but also wild birds, including geese, shore birds, vultures and eagles, according to Alaska’s state veterinarian, Dr. Bob Gerlach.
“This is very unusual with the fact that it does cause such severe impact on wild birds as well as domestic,” Gerlach said this week. ”Our big concern is, what’s the impact on our wild bird population? So the wildlife biologists will be evaluating that. But the other big concern is the people with their backyard flocks.”
Bird flu is highly contagious, much like COVID-19 or influenza strains that can infect humans. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, transmission to humans or other mammals is very rare — just one human infection with current H5N1 bird flu viruses was reported in January, involving a person in the United Kingdom who did not have any symptoms.
In birds, the flu presents with a host of symptoms that include fatigue, swollen comb or wattles, difficulty walking, nasal discharge and decreased egg production.
Because there is no treatment for infected birds, the virus often means death for some, especially poultry and raptors like hawks, eagles or owls. The mortality rate for those birds is extremely high — between 70% and 100% once infected, said Gerlach.
Key spreaders are migrating geese and ducks making their way across the country, leaving highly contagious droppings as they go. So far, untold numbers of at least 51 species of wild birds have died. Over 33 million domestic poultry in the U.S. in 29 states have died from the virus or needed to be euthanized because of possible exposure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is tracking the spread.
Gerlach said there are two different bird migrations that could bring the bird flu to Alaska, and it’s possible contagious birds have already arrived in the state, or will soon.
Wild birds including gulls, sandhill cranes, swans and dabbling ducks have already made the trip, he said.
The virus began in Asia, Gerlach said, and has been detected in northern Kazakhstan and northern parts of Russia.
“So it’s coming from both sides — going from the east, from the Lower 48, and from the west, from Asia,” he said.
Trying to avoid Lower 48 horror stories
In Alaska, some backyard chicken owners, a community that has grown exponentially in recent years, are watching the spread of the virus with concern.
Fairbanks resident Amelia Sikes first adopted chickens at the beginning of the pandemic as a way to keep busy while stuck at home all the time. She’s glad she did.
“They’ve just been so fulfilling, like the best pets,” she said of the 11 birds that now make up her flock. “They give me lots of eggs, and one of them, Moira, is just more like a pet chicken than anything else.”
But now Sikes is monitoring the progress of avian flu through at least six Facebook groups dedicated to raising chickens. The horror stories she saw on social media from Lower 48 chicken owners worry her, especially the experience of a man who lost his entire 50-bird flock to avian flu.
That’s what would need to happen on Alaska farms where birds test positive, even if it’s just one, Gerlach said. The grim choice to euthanize birds helps prevent the virus from spreading.
Owners would likely be able to receive “indemnity” payments to help cover the value of any birds that had to be euthanized, he said.
Sikes said she’s already making changes to avoid that worst-case scenario. She recently asked neighbors to consider taking down bird feeders to avoid attracting wild birds, and is mindful of the snow her chickens get from outside and the river silt they use for dust baths.
“I have a covered run, so I’m not too concerned about wild birds getting in my bird space,” she said. “But I’m trying to be more aware of what parts of my chickens’ routine are potentially crossing that boundary.”
‘Protect our birds’
Bird TLC, the rehabilitation center near Potter Marsh, cares for between 600 and 800 sick, injured or orphaned birds yearly.
Staff recently put into place an extensive mitigation plan to protect incoming birds from the flu that’s reminiscent of preventive steps taken to stave off the spread of COVID-19 in people.
Dr. Karen Higgs, a center veterinarian, said workers each have about three pairs of shoes and multiple outfits to change into while moving around the facility to prevent contamination.
The center is closed to visitors, and two weeks ago, they set up a quarantine and isolation area where all bird intakes go first to be tested for avian influenza.
Higgs said that while she tries not to make comparisons between avian flu and COVID-19, she think the last two years helped prepare the center for the steps they’re taking now to protect their birds.
“I mean, even just as simple as, you can talk more about viruses, and when you say ‘virus load’ and how it’s transmitted, there’s a lot of vocabulary that now people know,” she said.
At the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, home to dozens of seabirds including various species of ducks and puffins, preparations are being made to protect the birds there from possible infections, according to Carrie Goertz, the center’s director of animal health.
Although many of the birds at the SeaLife Center aren’t as likely to become seriously ill from the flu as poultry and raptors, they can often be asymptomatic carriers, Goertz said. So the center is looking into bolstering the netting around its aviaries to limit exposure to other birds.
The center is also exploring instituting “foot baths” for visitors once cases have been identified in Alaska, Goertz said. They plan to increase the frequency of health screenings and testing that’s done on their birds, she said.
At Bird TLC, veterinarian Higgs said that while the steps the center is taking might seem drastic to some, they’ve been talking to experts in the Lower 48 where the bird flu has already arrived to know what practices are best and just how bad this strain really is.
“Our whole goal is to protect our birds, protect our patients, and then also keep ourselves safe,” she said.
Precautions for owners of backyard flocks
• Keep your chickens or ducks away from ponds where waterfowl may be.
• Keep feed protected from wild birds or other wildlife.
• Keep poultry under cover or otherwise limit free ranging to prevent contact with wild birds.
• Change clothes and boots before going to another farm or area with birds.
• Do not share equipment and supplies with other bird owners.
• Isolate new birds for 30 days before adding them to your flock.
• Wash hands thoroughly after handling or working with birds. Wear clean clothes, and disinfect cages or equipment that come in contact with birds and their droppings.
• When handling and cleaning game, hunters should wear gloves, wash hands, and disinfect knives and equipment used for cleaning. Use caution if you have domestic birds at home.
Whom to contact
To report illness or death in a backyard flock, contact your local veterinarian or the Office of the State Veterinarian at 907-375-8215.
Alaskans who notice signs of unusual bird behavior or deaths among migratory birds — which include disorientation, twitching or tremors, and necks twisted back — can call a sick or dead bird hotline managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 1-866-527-3358, or email email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the sick or dead bird hotline as the state’s. It is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.