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National avian flu outbreak launches B.C. bird feeder safety debate

BCSPCA says feeders and baths pose risk, others says chief concern is protecting poultry
A black oystercatcher in south Oak Bay is pictured hunting for food between Victoria Golf Club and Kitty Islet. Waterfowl and raptors remain the wild bird groups at highest risk of avian flu, which has emerged in various species in B.C. since February. (Evert Lindquist/News Staff)

As the number of avian flu cases in B.C. climbs into the summer, the provincial SPCA is advising British Columbians to pause bird feeders and baths.

But not everyone agrees.

Since January, 44 wild birds in B.C. have been tested for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), with nationwide spikes in the disease occurring late May and early July. Between February and June, a bald eagle, wood duck, Northwestern crow, great blue heron, peregrine falcon and two great horned owls around the province have tested positive.

In Greater Victoria, one Canada goose near Rock Bay and another by View Royal were tested for HPAI in June.

“This strain is thought to have come from migrating birds,” said Andrea Wallace, BCSPCA wild animal welfare manager, adding that it first entered Eastern Canada from the U.S. before “quickly spreading across the country and into B.C.”

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“Waterfowl can actually carry the disease and not show any signs of illness,” Wallace said.

She called bird feeders, which can attract fowl and other animals and quickly grow unsanitary, a “great recipe for disease spread.” Not only do feeders cause unnatural wildlife congregations, they also transfer disease when birds eat below them on the ground where their feces accumulates.

A bird bath regularly scrubbed, disinfected and refreshed likely poses little issue for birds, Wallace noted, but most people don’t put in that level of care.

All bird species can contract HPAI, but Ann Nightingale of the Rocky Point Bird Observatory explained waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors that prey and scavenge along the water remain at highest risk.

But Nightingale said temporarily removing bird feeders and emptying bird baths is unnecessary, explaining that HPAI hasn’t traditionally been an issue for wild birds in North America and primarily affects chickens and other domestic flocks.

“It’s devastating to poultry farmers to lose tens of thousands of birds to this flu,” she said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, in a statement to Black Press Media, said waterfowl and other wild birds aren’t normally affected by HPAI, but are “natural reservoirs of influenza viruses” and can transmit the disease to domestic birds. HPAI can reach birds via infected poultry and contaminated manure, litter, clothing, footwear, vehicles, equipment, feed and water.

“Wild birds are believed to be responsible for a number of these outbreaks,” the statement read, referencing the “unprecedented number” of HPAI cases affecting farmed birds across Canada, most recently in Quebec.

While the agency only listed biosecurity practices for farmers, maintaining high sanitation standards and keeping poultry and wild birds separated were dominant themes.

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Nightingale said people incorrectly attribute the spread of the disease to bird feeders because that’s where they usually see the birds that are affected by it.

“It is a good idea to keep your feeders and baths clean … but (HPAI) isn’t caused by the feeders.”

She recommended residents move bird feeders around their property, clean them more thoroughly and often, avoid spilling contents on the ground and consider not refilling them for several weeks to prevent bird clusters. Birds sick with HPAI may appear sluggish and extra fluffed up and, as Nightingale put it, actually look sick.

With some bird feeders taken down earlier this year in response to the outbreak. many bird watchers were disappointed, she added. “It was sad this spring the number of people who were saying they missed having the birds in their yard.”

Asked how long this outbreak might last, Wallace replied, “that’s the million-dollar question and we really don’t know.” The BCSPCA hadn’t expected to still be hearing of new HPAI cases by this point.

To report a sick or HPAI-positive bird in B.C., call 1-866-431-2437.



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