Biologist Paule Hjertaas considers herself an avid birder and is often admiring a variety of different birds on a regular basis. But on April 8, it was a different story
“First we thought it was poisoning,” said Hjertaas. “When we got home my husband phoned a conservation officer and they mentioned there was likely one case of bird flu.”
Hjertass returned to the same location on April 12 and found a number of dead birds along a section of the road they had parked on.
“I assumed that the birds had been there for a while,” said Hjertass. “And that’s why there was so many of them.”
That day she decided to take a video of a goose that was so disoriented it could barely walk and struggled to fly.
“It was obvious that the bird had neurological problems and this bird flew but he was just as disoriented flying as he was on the ground. The flight was very erratic.”
Avian influenza is a flu virus that is specific to birds. They are known to naturally carry these viruses as a lot of different strains are always circulating. But provincial wildlife health specialist Iga Stasiak said this is a new strain of what is known as H5N1.
“It is very different,” said Stasiak. “It’s causing more widespread mortality in our wild bird populations.”
Bonnie Dell, the president of the Wildlife Society of Saskatchewan, was not surprised avian influenza had made its way into the province but was shocked to see how quickly it had begun to spread.
“I, personally, note I have taken down my bird feeders,” said Dell. “I do not want to encourage birds congregating and I hope more people do that. It’s a little way to help. The ministry is also suggesting that you disinfect your bird feeders on a regular basis.
“I don’t think there are enough precautions we can take to help the bird population.”
Dell said if someone sees a struggling bird, call the Wildlife 911 Hotline at (306) 242-7177. Dell said they are currently going case by case.
If someone spots a dead bird in their yard, experts always recommend calling the Ministry of Environment Inquiry line. But if you do decide to dispose of the bird yourself, the ministry advises that a mask be worn along with disposable gloves while the bird is placed in a double bag. When the bag is thrown out, so should the mask and disposable gloves. The last step is to sanitize the area with a 10 per cent bleach solution to stop the spread of the virus.
“If you come upon a large flock that are dead or struggling,” said Dell, “do not approach it, do not try to go in and clean up a large site that has numerous dead birds. That is up to the professionals.”
Dell said just by walking into the area or driving in, the virus could be spread right back to your home, past neighbouring farms, because as a person drives away, it’s now on their vehicle’s tires and shoes. It is highly contagious.
“There hasn’t been reports of it spreading to humans or crossing species,” said Dell. “But it can’t be ruled out; this is COVID for birds. We don’t know a lot about it yet.”
Dell said the major concern lies with the endangered birds in the province. She said species like whooping cranes and sage grouse that are critically endangered may not recover from a virus like this one and for her, that’s a terrifying thought.
Stasiak, the provincial wildlife health specialist, said this strain of avian influenza is causing the worst outbreak the province has seen in seven years. What can be done to help birds through this outbreak is limited, Stasiak said, but there is one thing that can be done.
“We certainly do not want to promote congregation or artificial congregation among wild birds,” said Stasiak. “Especially waterfowls, so things like feeding waterfowls and those sorts of practices are not recommended at this time.”
If you spot a sick or dead bird, don’t approach it. Leave it to the experts. Call the Ministry of Environment Inquiry Line at 1-800-567-4224 or the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative at 306-966-5815.