The first domestic case of highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, was first detected in the southeastern U.S. back in January. It’s made it as far west as Colorado since then, and spring migration season means it’s likely on the move.
“With birds moving south to north this time of year, there’s the possibility that it may end up in Alaska so we should stay vigilant,” said Robin Corcoran, a bird biologist with the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk to humans is low, but more than 24 million birds have died so far in the continental United States. That’s the second deadliest avian flu outbreak in the nation since 2015, when 50 million birds died. To be fair, most of those reported deaths were from commercial poultry producers culling their flocks of chickens, geese and other farmed species to prevent further spread.
But the virus has had about a 90% mortality rate for smaller backyard flocks. At a virtual avian flu update last month, Alaska’s state veterinarian Dr. Bob Gerlach said bald eagles and mallard ducks and other wild species have also been hard hit.
“This is a unique strain,” said Gerlach. “And we are seeing neurological signs as well as mortalities in wild birds, so this is a little bit different.”
Corcoran said in places like Kodiak Island with large, vibrant bird populations, it might not be that unusual to find a dead bald eagle on a beach. But anything seemingly out of the ordinary should be reported.
“We’re also on the lookout for these unusual mortality events, so if we see a large number of carcasses, say five or more, that’s the kind of thing we want the public to report to either Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the state agencies or the Fish and Wildlife service,” said Corcoran.
Residents and their pets should avoid touching dead birds they find. Hunters should also be on the lookout and report any birds that might be coughing and sneezing or showing any other signs of illness.