In April of this year, it was reported that a spring outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), an H5N1 strain, occurred in wild and domestic birds across Canada and USA. The outbreak began in Alberta in early April 2022.
Fortunately, as we reach the end of May, Dr. Margo Pybus, Provincial Wildlife Disease Specialist with Fish and Wildlife in Alberta says the avian flu numbers in Alberta are now dropping. Pybus says, “The outbreak started in Alberta in early April and reached its peak, probably about the end of April, beginning of May, and we have noticed that that the outbreak appears to be declining, and that's based on fewer public calls reporting dead birds in their area.”
The other encouraging sign is that the white Snow geese, not to be confused with the brown Canada geese, have moved out of Alberta, and they were the primary birds carrying the virus. Dr. Pybus says, “As they came into Alberta, moving on their spring migration, and now most of the snow geese have moved off and they're now up in their Arctic breeding grounds, so they've taken the virus with them.”
Dr. Phybus says that avian flu is not new, but what is new is, “This is the first time that the virus, the form of the virus that came with the migrating birds this spring was actually causing mortality in wild birds.” In past incidents of avian flu, the effects have been devastating primarily to domestic chickens, geese, and ducks and did not cause mortality in wild birds.
As was the situation with COVID, we learned that viruses mutate and this year the strain of avian flu caused mortality in wild birds.
Then there is the food chain to factor in which other wild mammals and birds were eating the dead wild birds. Dr. Pybus says that her department was kept very busy fielding calls of dead wild birds, particularly geese and other wild animals being infected with the virus but is pleased to report that, “Those calls have diminished over the last 10 days, and so we're not getting nearly so many calls about that either.”
When asked if it is safe for the public to let their guard down and start filling bird feeders and birdbaths again, Dr. Pybus says, “For the most part, I think we can let our guard down, but we're always interested in learning if there are clusters of mortality. So, geese on a golf course are a perfect example, where we don't think the virus will remain active through the summer but since this is the first time, we've seen this particular strain of the virus we don't know for sure, so if there was a group of dead geese in a small area, then that is something that we would want to know about and follow up with.” So, if you come across a cluster of dead birds, Alberta Fish and Wildlife wants to know about it. In which case you would call 310-0000 or report it directly to the local Fish and Wildlife office in the area.
For now, Dr. Pybus is pleased to report that the wave of avian flu cases has reached its peak and is dropping, and her department is left finishing up with the remaining test results and all the follow-up paperwork it entails too.