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Should Bird Hunters Be Worried About Bird Flu?

Considerations for bird hunters and sporting dog trainers as avian influenza sweeps across North America.

Should Bird Hunters Be Worried About Bird Flu?

With game bird producers, hunting preserves, bird hunters, and bird dog trainers all at risk, here's what you need to know about the bird flu outbreak? (Photo By: Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock.com)

“Your life as you knew it will never be the same again” is a heartfelt sentiment I have shared with first time bird hunters on their initial exposure to the uplands; a statement uttered long before the COVID-19 virus would make it the new tagline for our post-pandemic lives.

Although the chaos of the Coronavirus is not entirely complete, things seem to be quieting down. By now, the virus has affected everyone in some way and just as we are ready for a reset with the spring training season, alarming news on the outbreak of Avian Influenza (AI) has caught our attention.

Reports came in from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in mid-January when AI was first detected in wild birds. Although the risk to humans has and continues to remain low—according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC)—there was a growing concern whether the virus would spread to commercial poultry, backyard domestic flocks—and for us—wild upland bird species. If self-sufficiency and food security are some of your motivations for hunting, this might be a banner year to fill the freezer, but a low-threat is not a no-threat, so let’s check in for some guidance on the status and outlook of bird flu in 2022.


Under the Weather Waterfowl

Waterfowl hunters have kept a close eye on AI since it was discovered in a South Carolina wigeon on January 14, 2022, according to the CDC. As the spring snow goose migration crept north in early- to mid-March, bird flu was found across the flyways (and in commercial poultry), according to a report from Wildfowl Magazine. Wildlife managers remind us that although AI is naturally occurring in waterfowl and shorebirds and typically doesn’t become a problem for humans or other birds, it can be troublesome when and where birds congregate. Because waterfowl are often asymptomatic carriers, they are generally to blame when an infection is found among other bird populations (domestic, commercial, and wild). This occurs through direct contact between birds, shared water sources, or accidental cross-contamination by people.

Since the first case, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) (a division of the USDA) and state and federal wildlife managers have been monitoring the spread. To date, hundreds of positive cases have now been identified in wild birds from Maine to Montana, as well as across Canada. There have also been detections in commercial poultry producers, with large-scale “depopulations.”.

should bird hunters be worried about bird flu?
Distribution of positive AI cases in wild birds across North America as of May 24, 2022 (Photo courtesy of APHIS)

How will waterfowl fare during the spring breeding and nesting season and what impacts will we see during the fall hunting season? Only time will tell, and all we can do is anxiously watch the ongoing surveillance, while enacting safe and bio-secure practices to keep ourselves and our domestic birds isolated from wild waterfowl contacts.


Going After Game Birds

So maybe you’re not a waterfowl hunter and you think none of this matters to you—you’d be dead wrong. There is a very real and ongoing threat felt by the game bird producers and hunting preserves that are integral to bird hunting and bird dog training. Whether you plan to visit a shooting preserve before the wild bird opener, raise your own pigeons or quail this summer, or purchase a few mail-order birds to steady your dog before fall, there have been a few changes to the game bird industry, with a few looming dangers to keep an eye on.

Peg Ballou, president of the North American Gamebird Association (NAGA) mentions that AI has already had some serious impacts, including a few operations who experienced depopulations. “For the first time since 2015, several hunting preserves have had issues, namely those facilities who also raise waterfowl. Luckily, the preserves were at the end of their season and they’re likely to bounce back prior to the fall season opener.”

should bird hunters be worried about bird flu?
Game bird producers are subject to the same governmental oversight and monitoring as commercial poultry producers—as well as the same threat level of avian influenza. (Photo By: David Tadevosian/Shutterstock.com)

Ballou mentions how all game bird producers have had to increase existing bio-security efforts to prevent introducing the virus to their commercial flocks. “Producers have been tasked with designing new protocols with proper entry/exit systems, separating flocks (especially those with waterfowl), decontaminating clothing and equipment, and taking additional measures to discourage wild waterfowl from visiting their properties. AI can live in fecal matter, it can live in ponds, on clothing, in carcasses, and it really doesn’t take much to cause a big problem. This is serious and it all comes down to maintaining a high-level of bio-security.”

Although AI seems to be declining during the spring and summer months, producers and preserves continue to be at risk, with a lingering concern of a second wave during the fall migration and hunting seasons.

Backyard Bird Doggers

If you’re still thinking none of this is hitting close to home, if you plan to purchase training birds or start your backyard quail pen this summer, you may want to pay attention now.

Zack Zawada, president of Zukovich Game Birds, said his operation has experienced a few difficulties from the bird flu outbreak. “This couldn’t have hit at a worse time, right when folks are looking to acquire birds for training and trialing. We’ve had to adopt greater bio-secure measures at our facility, including setting up an off-site transfer station. No one is allowed on-site at this time.”

Zawada affirms that production is strong and does not anticipate any disruptions to sales and shipping, but reminds buyers to have some patience. “We’ve had to adapt to some additional testing and permitting, extra labor costs, care, and attention, but we’re carrying on with business as usual. We’re following our state-mandated protocols—the same as the commercial poultry producers—and we’re jumping through all the hoops to keep our birds safe.”

should bird hunters be worried about bird flu?
All game bird species including pheasant, chukar, and quail are susceptible to bird flu. (Photo By: Steve Oehlenschlager/Shutterstock.com)

Bird Flu Best Practices for Hunters

There is a relatively low threat for AI to impact wild upland game birds, but not a zero threat. Because wild birds are much more widely distributed, isolate as individuals or smaller groups, and reside in remote and harder-to-access locations, it’s unlikely bird flu will have serious impacts to them. It’s also doubtful that wild birds will be discovered sick or deceased from AI before being consumed by a scavenger. As the spring migration is now complete, the threat for waterfowl to expose upland birds reduces even further.

The CDC maintains there is a low-risk for the virus to infect humans and that wild bird meat is safe to eat, but that doesn’t mean bird hunters shouldn’t take proper precautions given the fact that wild birds may be asymptomatic and may not appear to be sick. There is also, a real threat for hunters bringing home infected wild birds and transmitting AI to their domestic poultry (chickens, turkey, ducks, and geese) or pen-raised game birds, in which case cautionary efforts should be made to avoid introducing the virus to their backyard flocks.

should bird hunters be worried about bird flu?
Bird hunters are encouraged to properly handle wild birds to avoid introducing avian bird flu to their backyard flocks. (Photo By: glebchik/Shutterstock.com)

Whether you hunt waterfowl or upland birds, these best practices are common sense, and an easy chore for the sanitization specialists we’ve become since the COVID-19 pandemic. Do not take, handle, or keep wild birds that appear to be sick. Visual signs of AI often include lethargy, stumbling, abnormal behavior, twisted neck, swollen head/neck, nasal discharge, and coughing. Immediately report suspected AI bird mortalities to your state wildlife agency for further investigation and testing.

Wear gloves when processing meat, wash your hands after handling, avoid cross-contamination, properly discard carcasses, and cook meat thoroughly (to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit). If you do keep backyard poultry or raise training birds, it’s recommended that you handle wild birds at an off-site location, take extra efforts to decontaminate, avoid cross-contamination, and discourage waterfowl from visiting your property.

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