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Avian influenza is confirmed on Cape Cod

Canada Geese
Canada Geese

After a much-needed week in sunny Florida, where the birds are so tame that I felt like I was taking pictures in a zoo, it was nice to come home to some signs of spring. Crocuses and snowdrops are blooming and lot of hopeful perennials are already poking through. Insects were even buzzing around yesterday in the late winter warmth. And Ospreys are already being reported from Falmouth to Orleans. But, I regret to inform you, yet another pesky viral variant is here to harsh your spring vibe. But don’t reach for your N95 just yet, unless you’re a duck — I’m talking about highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI. The Eastern U.S. is in the midst of an outbreak, and the first cases for Massachusetts were confirmed in two Wellfleet Canada Geese last week.

So what does this mean for you? I’m not a bird pathologist, but I’m going to play one on the radio — bear with me. In all likelihood it won’t mean anything to you unless you keep domestic fowl of some sort — while Jim Perdue is shaking in his shoes, you can likely relax. The CDC maintains that the risk to humans from this outbreak is low. Avian influenza mainly occurs in wild waterfowl, seabirds, and shorebirds without causing illness, but has gained pathogenicity as it passes back and forth between domestic and wild birds. Before 2002 the flu was deadly to domestic birds but relatively benign in wild birds, but a newer strain from domestic geese in China has caused mortality in wild birds much more often since then. Even so, it poses little risk to bird populations overall, with outbreaks in wild birds being short-lived.

So far the two Canada Geese from Wellfleet are the only confirmed cases in Massachusetts, but with a strong uptick in dead and symptomatic waterfowl and shorebirds, and all the confirmed cases throughout Eastern North America, it’s clear we are in the midst of an outbreak. Most birds have shown neurological symptoms, and suspected cases have been documented in several ducks, Sanderlings, gulls, and even crows and hawks here on the Cape. Importantly, there’s no evidence it affects your typical backyard feeder birds, so you don’t need to worry about bird feeders beyond cleaning them periodically with bleach, which should be standard practice regardless of disease outbreaks.

All flu viruses are variants of the same species, including human seasonal flu, swine flu, and avian flu. Avian flu can infect mammals, rarely including people, and actually caused a big Harbor Seal die off in New England back in 2011. It could infect scattered poultry farm workers, but it is not a significant concern to you and me, and transmission from wild birds to people is almost unheard of.

Nevertheless, and even though we all have masks handy, it’s probably best that people don’t go handling sick birds or snuggling harbor seals without calling Mass Wildlife, Wild Care or Cape Wildlife first — they can advise you on what to do and how to safely handle a sick or dead bird. If you keep poultry, you probably are in various poultry person networks and have been advised, but if you get sick birds you should report them to the Mass Department of Agricultural Resources.

Like all bird reports, this one is archived on the website and shareable on Facebook. Please share it — my hope is this piece will go viral but that the bird flu will not.