The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources confirmed a case of avian flu in a wild bird last week, and officials are urging Utahns who have birds or interact with them to take precautions.
The virus was found in a dead great horned owl in April, and the case was recently confirmed at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory, located in Ames, Iowa. Five additional owls were later found dead in both Cache and Weber counties, and the wildlife division is awaiting their test results.
Avian flu can be passed to humans in some cases, and one person in Colorado tested positive for the virus in late April after direct exposure to poultry. But risk to the public with this particular strain is low, officials said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the patient in Colorado reported fatigue for a few days as their only symptom and has since recovered.
“Certain strains can be fatal and like all flus, they can mutate, and they get into other species,” said Virginia Stout, wildlife veterinarian for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “But as the disease spreads and changes, there’s definitely a possibility it could change and become more virulent.”
These viruses are “very contagious” among birds though, and can cause rapid and high mortality in domestic birds particularly — such as chickens, turkeys and domestic ducks. They can also kill waterfowl, raptors and scavengers.
Tracy Aviary taking precautions
The Tracy Aviary is taking precautions against the contagious virus among its Salt Lake City flocks, officials said.
That includes temporarily closing three exhibits that house birds that are most at risk of contracting the virus — the Kennecott Wetlands, Backyard Birds, and Treasures of the Rainforest. And some of its close-encounter experiences, like the Lorikeet Adventure, have been suspended.
The aviary has also installed new netting to prevent wild birds from congregating with sensitive species, and shoe disinfection may be required at some indoor exhibits to limit birds’ exposure to outside materials.
“Some of those places have endangered species, so we’ve advised them to put the really special birds indoors so there’s no chance of contact between flying birds overhead and the species in the zoo,” Stout said.
“We’ve had to remove a couple geese from the premises,” Stout continued, “just to make sure that they don’t have [avian influenza] and spread it without us knowing.”
The flu can be spread among birds through nasal and oral discharge, as well as fecal droppings. Songbirds are usually not affected by the virus, so individuals should not need to remove bird feeders unless they have backyard chickens or ducks, since they are more at susceptible.
“Another thing that you want to avoid is going into places where waterfowl and shorebirds are, and then using those same boots around your chickens at home,” Stout said.
How you can help stop the spread
The length of the restrictions depends on the virus’ prevalence in the environment, Stout said, so they may be lifted when the state has gone a month or two without any new cases.
The wildlife division is testing birds for avian influenza as they find them, so individuals should report any groups of dead waterfowl or scavengers they encounter — and be sure not to touch them.
“Just report it to us, and we will come collect them for testing,” Stout said in a news release. “It typically doesn’t have much of an impact on the overall populations of waterfowl, but it’s likely that we will have some die now that it’s been confirmed in wild birds in the state.”
Utah’s last confirmed cases of avian flu were in 2014-15, during a nationwide outbreak of highly pathogenic strains. At that time, the virus was found in two healthy ducks in the Beehive State.
“A lot of it has to do with migration, so the reason that it started happening is those birds were flying in ... and through that migration, they’re bringing new viruses in to the environment,” Stout said. “So we’re hoping that by mid-summer, it should be calming down, because it doesn’t last very long in the warmer temperatures.”