A year after a highly contagious strain of avian influenza was first detected in Alaska, the state veterinarian said the ongoing outbreak continues to pose a serious threat to wild birds and domestic poultry.
Dr. Bob Gerlach is urging owners of backyard chickens, ducks and geese to continue to take precautions to protect them from the illness as migrating birds make their yearly return to the state.
Over the past year, thousands of wild birds and more than 58 million domestic poultry in the U.S. have died from the virus, which has already caused the largest bird flu outbreak in the nation’s history. The outbreak has driven up egg and poultry prices nationwide
Meanwhile, wild bird advocates in the state say they haven’t let down their guard, either — and are preparing for the possibility that the deadly strain could be part of life for the foreseeable future.
“We are planning on the same high-level biosecurity measures that we did last year,” said Dr. Karen Higgs, a veterinarian with Bird Treatment & Learning Center, a rehabilitation facility in Anchorage that cares for hundreds of injured birds each year.
In Alaska, more than 1,200 chickens and ducks have died from the virus or needed to be euthanized because of possible exposure since the first case was identified last spring, along with over 200 wild birds and a few mammals, including two bears and a fox.
“I think this is the biggest avian disease event that I’ve witnessed in my career here in Alaska,” said U.S. Geological Survey wildlife geneticist Andy Ramey, who has been working in the state for over two decades and is an expert in avian influenza.
Avian influenza is spread by migrating geese and ducks that leave highly contagious droppings as they move across large areas. Symptoms in infected birds include neurological symptoms, fatigue, swollen comb or wattles, difficulty walking, nasal discharge and decreased egg production.
There’s no treatment for birds that are infected, and the mortality rate for poultry and raptors like hawks, eagles or owls is especially high. While transmission to humans is rare and the risk to human health is low, multiple outbreaks of the illness have been identified in marine mammals around the world.
For backyard flock owners, precautionary measures involve keeping their flocks’ feed protected; limiting free ranging by keeping coops and runs covered; and keeping them away from ponds and other bodies of water to avoid contact with wild birds that could be carrying the virus, Gerlach said.
“The probability of infection risk for backyard flocks is going to be the same if not greater than last year,” Gerlach said. “I think people should be just as vigilant if not more than last year.”
Testing protocols and precautions
On a recent afternoon at Bird TLC, a bald eagle reluctantly opened its beak as Katie Thorman, a rehabilitation assistant with the center, stuck a swab down the back of its throat to test for avian influenza.
Thorman said that it was unlikely this particular eagle had avian influenza — it wasn’t exhibiting any neurological symptoms — but their protocol was to test each bird and keep it isolated from the others until its test comes back negative, which takes about a week.
Besides regular testing, other measures at the center include a foot bath for staff, plus regular disinfectants, keeping the center closed to visitors and using a quarantine and isolation area where nearly all new birds are taken to be tested for the disease.
“It’s depressing. But we’re still here. And we’re still gonna do the best we can for the birds that are treatable,” Thorman said.
To protect its birds and animals from the virus, the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward has screens in place that act as physical guards, as well as foot baths and guest questionnaires to minimize risk, said Carrie Goertz, the center’s director of animal health.
With the virus still around, it’s important for Alaskans to be able to recognize the possible signs and symptoms in wild birds, Ramey said. That includes an apparent lack of coordination, stumbling, a twisted neck and an inability to stand upright or fly.
He encouraged people to report sightings of wild birds that appeared sick or injured, or were exhibiting any unusual behaviors, to contact a hotline managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 1-866-527-3358, or email email@example.com.
Uncertainty over the future
To the dismay of those who care for birds, the deadly strain seems to have stuck around in the state through the winter and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
“The original hope in 2022 was that this would last one season, and after the fall migration, we wouldn’t have to worry about it. And that’s not what happened,” said Laura Atwood, executive director of Bird TLC.
Now, Atwood and others are contending with what a future where the highly pathogenic strain is here to stay — a daunting possibility. There’s always the potential that the virus will mutate and become more of a risk to humans.
State veterinarian Gerlach said this spring Alaska will be tracking possible spread of the illness in mammals after large outbreaks among seals and other marine mammals were recorded in multiple places, including Maine, Chile and Peru.
Gerlach, whose office tracks the number of confirmed infections in Alaska on a state website, said he suspected that the actual impacts of the disease were much greater than the official count.
“Alaska is a large state with a spread-out population, and it’s likely we had a lot of more deaths in wild places that no one ever knew about,” he said.
Ramey said it was too soon to understand the full impact the deadly virus strain has had or will have on the state’s wild bird population.
“We’re fortunate in Alaska to have generally large populations of wild birds and lots of habitat that’s in good condition,” which acts as a helpful buffer when it comes to disease risk, he said. In California, a critically endangered condor species currently faces a more existential threat from bird flu.
“When you start to see it threatening endangered species,” said Higgs, the Bird TLC veterinarian, “that’s very worrisome.”
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.
Who 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 the Sick or Dead Bird Hotline managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 1-866-527-3358, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Bob Gerlach, Alaska’s state veterinarian, will be speaking in Palmer on Monday, May 15 about avian influenza outlook in Alaska, and how poultry owners can protect their flocks. The talk hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service will be held at 6 p.m. Monday at 1509 Georgeson Road, Room 208, Kerttula Hall, or on Zoom; registration is available online.