Farmers and wildlife watchers are on guard after some poultry flocks and wild birds — including a Canada goose in Ottawa and a redhead duck in Kingston, Ont. — recently tested positive for a deadly strain of bird flu.
Canada has seen a limited number of outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian flu so far this year, said Dr. Shayan Sharif, a professor and associate dean with the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.
“We have to make sure that the virus is contained very effectively and very successfully at this point in time,” he said.
The virus rarely infects humans. However, it can make birds very sick, causing anything from coughing and sneezing to erratic behaviour.
Goose on Rideau River shore tests positive
Last week, a volunteer with bird rescue group Safe Wings Ottawa confirmed a bystander’s report of a disoriented goose by the Rideau River shore near Billings Bridge.
“Considering that it was off balance, had neurological symptoms … we thought it would be most prudent to call the Canadian Wildlife Service,” said Anouk Hoedeman, Safe Wings’ co-founder and co-ordinator.
The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative confirmed the goose was infected with the H5N1 strain.
A duck in Kingston, a red-tailed hawk from New Hamburg, Ont., and a red-breasted merganser from Point Pelee National Park have also tested positive for the strain in the last two weeks.
While bird flu cases are found every year, they are usually of the low-pathogenic sort — unlike the strain currently striking Canada and other parts of the globe, said a wildlife pathologist for the co-operative’s Ontario office.
“This one is actually causing severe illness and death of wild birds in large numbers, which we haven’t seen previously,” Brian Stevens said.
There have been major outbreaks and “die-offs” in Europe and Africa and recent reports of die-offs of wild birds as a direct result of the virus in North America, Stevens continued.
“Any time we have a highly pathogenic strain, there is always that concern that it could jump into both commercial or backyard flocks of poultry.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has already placed three Ontario commercial turkey farms and two backyard flocks in the province, including one north of Peterborough, Ont., under quarantine after animals at each site became infected with the strain.
The agency — which has called this avian flu “a significant national concern as birds migrate to Canada” — is keeping an updated list of affected sites here.
Farmers in the province are “absolutely concerned” though not yet alarmed about the current caseload, said Lisa Bishop, director of brand and communications at Chicken Farms of Canada.
“When you start seeing it land in a commercial operation, that means that it’s time to sort of re-up or redouble your biosecurity efforts,” she said, citing measures like enhanced sanitization.
Farms with infected flocks generally see those animals culled, she added.
“It’s very stressful,” Bishop said of the impact on farmers, who fear a worst-case scenario like 2004 when British Columbia’s poultry industry was devastated by bird flu.
Worry about injured birds left behind
Safe Wings is concerned the current state of high alertness might affect local wildlife care efforts, Hoedeman said.
As of March 31, the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre — which takes in birds hit by vehicles — is temporarily not accepting injured or sick aquatic birds or dead birds of any kind due to the cases of H5N1, according to its website. People are instead encouraged to call the cooperative.
“We don’t want the public to handle them themselves,” Hoedeman said. “But you also don’t want to leave birds that are clearly injured and suffering.”
Hoedeman said she’s hopeful the City of Ottawa or the Ottawa Humane Society might be able to help in some situations.
If you encounter a sick or dead wild bird, please contact the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative by phone (866-673-4781) or report online at https://cwhc.wildlifesubmissions.org