Researchers investigate Yukon Delta bird deaths amid avian flu outbreak

By Megan Gannon
An outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza continues to infect wild birds in Alaska, and in the last few weeks, the Yukon Delta has seen a rise in reports of birds “loafing around” when they should be nesting, shaking their heads and displaying other signs that they might be sick.
Bryan Daniels, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waterfowl biologist for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, described what he was hearing from his crews working at research camps in the region.
“There appears to be much fewer nesting birds thus far,” Daniels wrote in a June 1 post on the Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network. He said that crews in two active camps on the coast had counted about half the number of nests during all previous years reported “a lot of birds in flocks loafing around.”
“Since about May 25, crews have been seeing multiple species showing what we believe are signs of highly pathogenic avian influenza,” Daniels wrote. “The signs we are seeing widespread is a headshaking that we equate to ‘getting the cobwebs out,’ like a person may do when they first wake up.” That behavior was observed in a growing list of species: black brant, cackling geese, bar-tailed godwits, dunlin, lapland longspurs, spectacled eiders, emperor geese, greater white-fronted geese, sabines gulls, glaucous gulls and red-necked phalaropes.
In some extreme cases, symptoms included head waving, disorientation, wandering or swimming in circles and lack of fear of people. Daniels wrote that these behaviors were seen in sabine’s gulls, glaucous gulls, cackling geese and black brant.
“We have also found dead birds of multiple species and one dead fox—all suspected to have died from avian influenza and are on their way to be tested and confirmed,” Daniels said. “Most dead birds found on land are curled up as if sleeping. The exception are the gulls or geese that die in the water- they are splayed out as one would expect.”
Eric Taylor, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s chief of migratory bird management for Alaska, said that the agency was watching the situation in the Yukon Delta carefully.
“It’s our impression that productivity is down,” he told The Nome Nugget. “That’s a bad sign.”
Taylor said his guess was that avian influenza was to blame for the low numbers of nesting birds. A crew of FWS biologists just went to the region for an annual nesting survey that’s been going on for the last 30 years. Taylor hoped the results of their fieldwork would give a better idea of the potential effects of avian influenza on a variety of species including cackling geese, emperor geese, greater white-fronted geese and spectacled eiders.
State agencies continue to ask the public to stay vigilant and report any dead or sick seeming birds. According to the current guidance, anyone hunting birds or collecting eggs for subsistence is advised to wear protective gear like gloves and, if its available, eye and respiratory protection like googles and facemasks. They are also advised to keep hunting and processing equipment clean, to avoid harvesting animals that appear sick and to thoroughly cook meat and eggs (to an internal temperature of 165°F). People should not smoke, eat or drink while handling harvested birds. Dogs should also be prevented from eating sick or dead birds.  
There has been one confirmed case of avian influenza in a person, in Colorado, but health officials maintain that the risk of human infection remains low, especially from wild birds.
“The risk of human infection associated with the current H5N1 outbreak of avian influenza among wild birds is low,” said Alaska’s chief epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. He pointed out that more than 3,000 people have been involved in killing infected domestic poultry in the United States. As a high-risk group with prolonged contact with sick birds, they are being tested regularly and no other positive cases have been identified, he said.
Dr. Tim Uyeki, chief medical officer in the CDC’s influenza division explained to the Nugget that the current H5N1 viruses that have been detected in birds in the U.S. since late 2021 are genetically different from earlier H5N1 viruses in birds—in a way that looks non-threatening to humans. “So far, current H5N1 viruses lack changes seen with viruses in the past that have been associated with spreading easily among poultry and causing sporadic human infections resulting in severe illness in other countries,” Dr. Uyeki said. “Current H5N1 viruses are adapted to spread well in infected wild birds and cause poultry outbreaks but appear to have a lower ability to infect people than previous H5N1 viruses.”
How does the virus transmit in those rare cases of infection? Dr. Uyeki explained that bird flu viruses infect the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of birds and may infect other tissues including their internal organs. Infected birds then shed the virus in their saliva, mucous and feces; the virus could also contaminate their feathers and the environment.
“Avian influenza virus infections among people are rare but can occur when virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth or is inhaled,” Dr. Uyeki said. That means people risk infection when they have close or prolonged contact with infected birds without respiratory or eye protection. They could also be at risk if exposed to surfaces that are contaminated with the mucous, saliva or feces of sick birds.
“Since some wild birds, including some ducks, can be infected without signs of disease, people should wear disposable gloves when handling wild birds, and if possible, also wear a respirator mask or facemask and gloves when dressing birds in the field,” Dr. Uyeki said. “Gloves and masks should be disposed of safely, tools should be disinfected, and handwashing should be done immediately afterward.”  
Since 2003, more than 860 people have been infected with H5N1 in 19 countries. More than half of those people died. However, the vast majority of those human infections have resulted from close exposure to infected poultry, “most likely through inhalation of aerosolized virus,” Dr. Uyeki said. He added that historically the number of infections of people related to exposure to wild birds is small.

To report unusual observations and concerns about birds, call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Sick/Dead Bird Hotline at 1-866-527-3358. Reports can also be posted to the Local Environmental Observer Network, www.leonetwork.org or locally to Gay Sheffield, UAF Alaska Sea Grant at (907) 434-1149. Foxes or other wild mammals behaving abnormally or found dead can be reported to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at dfg.dwc.vet@alaska.gov.

 

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