How to Keep Birdlife Safe in the Face of Avian Influenza

by Kristy Aleksich

Spring is when many bird enthusiasts top up their feeders in hopes of attracting an array of birdlife. Whether you’re an avid birdwatcher or not, it’s quite lovely to see our feathered friends flitter in for a visit. But following the rise of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza in 2022, some experts have advised against bird feeders. So, do you really need to put your bird feeder into storage?

What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza, otherwise referred to as bird flu, is a serious disease that mainly infects birds. Outbreaks can affect poultry farms, small flocks, and wild and pet birds. There are several different types of avian influenza, with varying levels of seriousness. The H5N1 strain of avian influenza that has been circulating in North America is considered highly pathogenic, with a mortality rate of up to 90 to 100 percent for infected birds.

How does avian influenza spread?

An infected bird can spread the virus easily through its feces and respiratory discharge. The virus is incredibly resilient and can survive on surfaces for months, continuing to infect other birds. Birds like geese, ducks, hawks, and eagles are highly susceptible, but it’s possible for the virus to infect any species of bird.

Is avian influenza dangerous to humans?

It can be, but avian influenza is difficult to contract and even harder to spread to another human. Symptoms of the infection in humans can range from no symptoms at all to mild flu-like symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, and fatigue. In some cases, more severe symptoms such as pneumonia have been recorded. While there have been rare cases of death, avian influenza is generally considered non-threatening to humans.

What’s the deal with bird feeders?

Did you know that some wildlife experts, including the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), recommend providing bird feeders only in the harsher winter months? In spring and summer, there is plenty of natural food to go around for birds, making feeders unnecessary. If you’re keen to see birds in your yard, just plant a selection of plants and flowers that attract them naturally.

What can I do to help? 

The current recommendation to remove all birdfeeders and empty birdbaths is more specific to properties with poultry and other domestic animals. Songbirds are less likely to contract and transmit avian influenza. However, the BC SPCA notes that bird feeders and birdbaths do encourage birds to gather in the same spot, and these unnatural gatherings can increase the risk of transmission. Fallen seeds also attract birds to the ground, which may expose them to the droppings that collect beneath feeders.

Is there anything else I should do?

Aside from removing your bird feeders and baths, if you have an outside surface and notice droppings, be sure to give it a clean. Do not handle or feed wild birds by hand. Keep your eyes peeled for sick birds in your area. If you notice any ill or dead birds, report them by contacting your local wildlife agency. (In Canada, for example, you can use the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative’s online tool or call 1-800-567-2033.)

Let’s keep our feathered flyers singing their sweet tunes safely by doing our part.

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