Avian influenza (“bird flu”) is a viral illness commonly found in certain wild bird populations, most notably waterfowl and shorebirds. Wild birds, including waterfowl and some shorebirds and seabirds, may carry a variety of avian influenza (AI) viruses and not show clinical signs of illness.
Few AI viruses are able to infect humans, but influenza viruses are highly dynamic and change over time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers the risk to the general public from HPAI infection in wild birds, backyard birds, and commercial poultry to be low.
Occasionally, AI viruses change into forms that are deadly to domestic chickens and turkeys. These viruses are known as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) viruses, and the designation of “highly pathogenic” refers to its effect on domestic poultry, not humans or wildlife.
In 2022 in Virginia, HPAI has been detected in seven bird species: American green-winged teal, mallard, gadwall, American wigeon, Canada goose, bald eagle, and black vulture. There is no immediate public health concern with the HPAI viruses detected in Virginia.
Guidelines for Waterfowl Hunters and Exhibitors
The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) would like to provide an update on an ongoing avian disease issue in Virginia. During the November 2022 waterfowl hunting season, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was reported in hunter-harvested waterfowl (mallards, widgeon, green-winged teal) in several counties in eastern Virginia. The virus has also been confirmed in wild waterfowl harvested in other states along the Atlantic Coast, and in backyard and commercial poultry flocks in various areas of the United States.
HPAI is caused by infection with an influenza virus, and it can cause significant illness and death in domestic poultry. Waterfowl, and some shorebird and seabird species, generally do not show any signs of illness when infected. However, these species can still transmit the virus to other birds, most notably domestic poultry, raptors (eagles, hawks, vultures, owls, etc.), avian scavengers (gulls, ravens, crows), and upland game birds (turkeys, grouse, quail), that may get sick or die from the infection. Raptors and scavengers are typically exposed after feeding on waterfowl infected with HPAI. The high concentration of birds in rehabilitation centers increases the risk of HPAI transmission and precautions intended to reduce transmission of HPAI are warranted.
To date, there has been only one reported HPAI-related human illness in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the risk of HPAI infection from wild birds to people and pets (including hunting dogs) to be very low. General safety guidelines for handling live waterfowl or any birds showing signs of neurological (head tilt, lack of coordination, etc.) or respiratory (nasal or eye discharge, coughing, etc.) problems include:
- Consider vaccination for seasonal influenza to reduce the risk for infection.
- Do not handle or butcher birds that are obviously sick or are found dead.
- Wear rubber or disposable latex or nitrile gloves when handling these birds.
- Wear a KN96, an N95, or a K95 ventilator.
- Wear eye safety glasses.
- Wear protective clothing that can be disinfected or discarded after use when working with these high-risk birds.
- Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling these birds.Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after handling these birds or cleaning their exhibit.
- Clean work surfaces and equipment with soap and water. Then disinfect with a 10% chlorine bleach solution or hospital grade virucide.
- Cook game meat thoroughly – birds should reach an internal temperature of 165°F as measured by a meat thermometer to kill disease organisms and parasites.
For captive waterfowl facilities, rehabilitators and pet bird holders:
To reduce the risk of HPAI transmission between waterfowl/birds and domestic poultry or pet or rehabilitation birds, the following additional precautions are recommended:
- People who own or interact with domestic poultry should not handle birds displaying neurological or respiratory signs or any wild waterfowl, shorebirds, or seabirds. If this is unavoidable, you should change clothes and shower before interacting with other poultry or pet birds.
- Immediately isolate or euthanize birds displaying neurological signs of disease, sudden lethargy, or an abrupt change in behavior from other birds.
- Report waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds, raptors, avian scavengers, and upland game birds found dead or euthanized after exhibiting a brief period of neurologic or respiratory symptoms. See below for additional details on notification procedures.
- Avoid feeding wild bird carcasses to captive/exhibit raptors, owls, and crows.
- Routinely wash cages and other facilities to remove all organic debris.
- After washing, disinfect cages using a 10% bleach solution or hospital grade virucide. Follow the label to ensure appropriate contact time.
- Minimize transfer of waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds, raptors, avian scavengers, and upland game birds and sick birds between rehabilitation facilities.
- Enhance biosecurity for enclosures that include waterfowl, shore birds, sea birds, raptors, avian scavengers, upland game birds, or any birds displaying neurological or respiratory signs, to minimize the risk of people becoming carriers of the virus and acting as a vehicle for viral spread to other rehabilitation birds. Recommended biosecurity measures include the following:
- People that feed or treat these birds or clean their enclosures or cages should not interact directly or indirectly with other rehabilitation birds. If this is not possible, these birds and their enclosures should be treated or handled last.
- Handlers should wear coveralls and rubber boots when cleaning or walking through enclosure housing these birds.
- A boot station or foot bath should be present at every entrance or exit to enclosures housing these birds. The disinfectant should be replaced daily or according to the instructions on the label.
HPAI is a reportable disease. Notification procedures regarding sick or dead birds is as follows:
- Unusual poultry illnesses or deaths should be reported to the State Veterinarian’s Office at (804) 692-0601 or at email@example.com or through the USDA’s toll-free number, (866) 536-7593.
- Rehabilitated waterfowl (ducks, geese, or swans), seabirds (terns, gulls, cormorants, etc.), shorebirds (dunlin, black-bellied plovers, sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, etc.), upland game birds (turkeys, grouse, or quail), raptors (vultures, eagles, hawks, owls, etc.), or avian scavengers (crows, ravens, gulls, etc.) that die should be reported to either the USDA at (866) 536-7593 or DWR via the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline at 855-571-9003.
- If you find dead wild upland game birds, raptors, avian scavengers, or five or more dead waterfowl, shorebirds, black vultures or seabirds in the same area within 3-4 days, please notify DWR at 855-571-9003.
Guidelines for Individuals Finding Dead Birds
- DWR staff have been notified to be extra vigilant for sick or dead raptors (hawks, eagles, owls), turkeys, and waterfowl (ducks, swans, geese).
- If you see a sick or dead eagle, hawk, owl, or turkey (excluding carcasses found on the road) or turkey, please notify DWR via the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline at 855-571-9003.
- If you find five or more dead vultures, waterfowl, shorebirds, or seabirds in the same area within five days, please notify DWR via the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline at 855-571-9003.
- If you find a dead song bird(s) or suspect that one of the species listed above died of trauma from hitting a stationary object (window, power line) or moving vehicle (found on or near a road), or by predation (cat), do not call DWR and safely dispose of the bird using the guidelines below.
- To dispose of a dead bird, pick up the bird with an inverted bag or disposable glove, place the bird in another bag, and dispose of it in the trash. Trash receptacles should be secured so that children, pets and wild animals do not have access to them.
- Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, Guidance for State Wildlife Agencies to Reduce the Risk of HPAI Transmission in Wildlife Rehabilitation Facilities
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prevention and Treatment of Avian Influenza A Viruses in People
- Center for Food Security and Public Health, Avian Influenza
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2022 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, VS/WS, Guidance for Hunters – Protect Yourself and Your Birds from Avian Influenza