COMMUNITY

COLUMN: Avian flu could threaten Oregon birds through winter

The human flu season begins each autumn. It is usually worst from December through February here in the Northern Hemisphere. There is another flu season already surrounding us, killing some of its victims. It is avian flu. 

The particular strain that is spreading now is EA H5N1. This strain will not diminish its presence over the winter as the virus is not harmed by sub-freezing temperatures. Worse, the virus survives in bird feces, on feathers and solid surfaces, and can live and spread in water, even seawater for days. Think of a neighbor’s chicken coop, the geese in the golf course pond, those thousands of ducks and gulls headed our way for the coming rainy season. It is not always fatal but highly contagious.  

Avian flu victims have been found among wild birds in all parts of Oregon. It often affects clusters of birds. Among species being killed: Canada geese and other waterfowl, White Pelicans, raptors up to and including eagles; Great Blue Heron. If smaller birds start dying they are less likely to be detected as easily. Raccoons and house cats will see to that.

This avian flu strain is present in Canada and Alaska. That means migrating flocks coming our way over the next weeks might be carriers, spreading the flu to refuges, estuaries and riparian corridors, and even mountain meadows where it has not been … yet. Already most states have reported flu cases. Highest positive case numbers come from states with lots of waterfowl: North Dakota, Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina.  Migration could bring widespread outbreaks and alter the stats.  Right now, Oregon ranks 15th in number of cases with 51. North Dakota leads with 248—it has many nesting ducks over the summer.

Most identified victims in Oregon so far have been larger birds, often waterfowl: Canada goose, mallard, cinnamon teal, white pelican, bald eagle. In areas where the drought has reduced the amount of water the waterfowl will be con concentrated and that will help the fly spread faster among the crowded birds.  This could include Malheur, Summer Lake, Roger River Valley, Klamath. Down in California it could be an unhappy winter for large birds in the Sacramento River Valley.  All along the Pacific Coast our marshes and estuaries could become lethal.

To report a sick or dead wild bird: contact the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at 866-968-2600 or [email protected]

Where is avian flu in the U.S.? View federal data here and Oregon data here

For information about upcoming Salem Audubon programs and activities, see www.salemaudubon.org, or Salem Audubon’s Facebook page.

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Harry Fuller is an Oregon birder and natural history author of three books: “Freeway Birding,” "Great Gray Owls of California, Oregon and Washington," and "San Francisco's Natural History--Sand Dunes to Streetcars." He leads birding trips for the Malheur Field Station. He is a member of the Salem Audubon Society, and leads bird trips locally.