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Avian Influenza in Wild Birds

Avian Influenza Viruses

Avian influenza viruses occur globally in wild birds, especially in waterfowl and shorebirds.

While most strains of avian influenza circulating in wild birds do not cause disease in domestic poultry, occasionally the virus may spread to that group. If it does, it can develop into strains that cause significant mortality, referred to as highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

Some strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza, including the H5N1 influenza strain circulating in North American wild birds in 2022, have resulted in significant mortality in a variety of wild bird species, including flocks of migrating birds, water birds, raptors and scavenging birds. Incidents of sporadic mortality and clinical signs, including neurological symptoms (e.g. twisted necks, tremors), have been reported in multiple species across Canada and the US, including bald eagles.

While the virus does not typically affect mammals, there have been instances of neurological disease reported in red foxes and striped skunks associated with the current outbreak.

Since the detection of H5N1 avian influenza in Asia in 2005, there have been several HPAI viruses of global significance reported across Asia, Europe, and North America. Although current strains circulating in North America appear to be less likely to infect humans and do not appear to spread easily from person to person, individuals should take precautions when handling sick or dead birds.

Avian Influenza in Saskatchewan

The Government of Canada has detected the virus in migratory birds in all major flyways, and multiple Canadian provinces. In April of 2022, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed the virus in Saskatchewan.

While the impact on wildlife populations is not known at this time, the Government of Saskatchewan and federal partners are monitoring for incidents of avian mortality.

This outbreak has also impacted domestic poultry, with government confirming multiple infected flocks in Saskatchewan and across Canada.

National Inter-Agency Wild Bird Influenza Survey

The Government of Saskatchewan has participated in the National Inter-Agency Wild Bird Influenza Survey since 2006. The Government of Saskatchewan, along with partners at Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative conduct regular surveillance for avian influenza in wild birds including investigation of wildlife disease and mortality, as well and opportunistic sampling of live birds associated with routine bird banding activities and hunter harvest.

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment takes an active role in the dead wild bird survey and encourages field officers to target their investigation and collection of dead wild birds based on a priority approach.

Backyard Bird Feeders

Avian influenza transmission to songbirds and other feeder visitors has historically been low. Therefore, the use of backyard bird feeders is unlikely to spread highly pathogenic avian influenza to songbirds. However, since domestic poultry are vulnerable to highly pathogenic avian influenza, feeders in close proximity to poultry should be removed to reduce or eliminate contact between wild and domestic birds.

Bird feeders and baths should be cleaned regularly to prevent the spread of many illnesses, including salmonella, trichomoniasis, and avian influenza. It is recommended that bird feeders and baths be cleaned every two weeks by removing debris and soaking in a diluted bleach solution (one part household bleach to nine parts water) for at least ten minutes. Rinse and dry completely before re-use.

Safe Handling Procedures for Dead Birds

As a general precaution, people should avoid direct contact with sick or dead birds.

Avian influenza virus is shed in the fecal droppings, saliva and nasal discharges of birds, so you should avoid direct or indirect contact with these body fluids and secretions. There is very low risk of contracting avian influenza without having direct and prolonged contact with infected birds.

If you are removing a dead bird from your property, or submitting it for testing, the safe handling of the carcass provides protection from contracting avian influenza.

When handling dead birds, wear heavy-duty rubber gloves, dish gloves, latex plastic gloves, or double latex gloves. You may also use leak-proof plastic bags as gloves. Ensure that the bird's bill and claws do not puncture the bag or gloves when picking up the carcass.

If you are submitting the bird for evaluation, it should be double-bagged in clean garbage bags, sealed and kept cool or frozen until they can be dropped off at a Ministry of Environment office or at the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC). Collect and submit the specimen with the following information:

  • location where the bird was found;
  • species;
  • estimated number of dead species; and
  • finder's contact information.

If you are not submitting the animal for evaluation, you can dispose of the carcass in your garbage.

If you have contact with birds or their bodily fluids, follow with thorough cleansing with soap and water, or rinsing with alcohol-based hand products (containing >60 per cent alcohol) if hands are not visibly soiled.

Dispose of or wash gloves afterwards with soap and water. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water or with alcohol-based hand products.

Information for Hunters

Hunters should be aware of the signs of avian flu during the spring hunting season and should take the necessary precautions, when retrieving birds.

You can safely hunt, handle and eat healthy game birds; however, follow routine precautions:

  • Avoid direct contact (skin or mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth) with blood, feces and respiratory secretions of all wild birds.
  • Do not rub eyes, eat, drink, or smoke while cleaning, de-feathering or eviscerating game birds.
  • Ideally, wear dish gloves or latex/plastic gloves when handling and processing game birds.
  • Wash gloves, hands and clothing with soap and warm water immediately after processing game.
  • Wash tools, work surfaces, and other equipment with soap and warm water, then with a 10 per cent solution of household bleach - just the same as you would after handling raw chicken.
  • Cook game meat thoroughly:
    • Cook pieces and cuts to an internal temperature of 74°C (165°F)
    • Cook whole birds to an internal temperature of 82°C (180°F)
  • If you become ill while handling birds or shortly thereafter, see your doctor. Inform your doctor that you have been in contact with wild birds; and
  • For public health reasons, people who frequently handle wild birds should consider annual vaccinations against seasonal human influenza. This will not protect people from avian influenza, but it will reduce the likelihood of a person becoming infected with both human and avian influenza strains simultaneously. This reduces opportunities for viral reassortment and mutation that would allow a highly pathogenic avian influenza to become a highly transferable human influenza.
  • Always work in a well-ventilated environment.
    • If working outdoors, try to stay upwind to avoid inhaling dust, feathers and aerosols.
    • If working indoors or in a poorly ventilated environment, wearing a mask will further reduce your exposure to dust, feathers and aerosols.

Report and Submit Dead Birds

The Ministry of Environment leads the collection and shipment of dead birds to the CWHC in Saskatoon.

Field officers may request to pick up carcasses of dead wild birds if the mortality found or reported fits the following criteria:

  • Mortality involving more than one species of wild bird
  • Mortality involving multiple waterfowl or other water birds (other than snow geese)
  • Mortality event involving a notable number (over 100) of snow geese
  • Mortality involving any number of raptors or avian scavengers (e.g. ravens, crows, gulls)
  • Illness including neurological symptoms in any number of raptors, waterfowl, or avian scavengers.
  • Mortality involving any species that does not fit existing criteria for a mortality event associated with avian influenza, including incidents that occur in a new region or involving new species.

For all other wild birds found dead, the public may submit the specimens either directly to the CWHC in Saskatoon or drop off the specimen(s) (double-bagged and labeled appropriately) at any Ministry of Environment field office during regular office hours. Collect and submit the specimen with a submission form containing appropriate information, such as:

  • location where the resident found the bird;
  • species number and names;
  • estimated number of dead individuals; and
  • finder's contact information.

Please use the submission form found at Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

Dispose of or wash gloves afterwards with soap and water. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water or with alcohol-based hand products.

To report sick or dead birds, please contact:

Observations of sick birds and wildlife mortalities can be reported online to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative or through the 'Wildlife Health Tracker' app.

For further information, please contact:

CWHC Western/Northern Office
AIV Hotline (toll-free): 1-866-544-4744

Helpful Links:

Avian Influenza and Wild Birds

Prevent the Spread of Avian Influenza in Wild Birds - Infographic

Wild Birds and Avian Influenza – Handling Guidelines – Public Health Agency of Canada

Avian Influenza in Wild Birds and Avian Influenza – Environment and Climate Change Canada

Avian Influenza and Domestic Poultry and Pet Birds

How to Prevent and Detect Disease in Backyard Flocks and Pet Birds – Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Avian Influenza in Poultry – Ministry of Agriculture

Detections of HPAI in Domestic Poultry – Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Avian Influenza and Public Health

Ministry of Health Fact Sheet on Avian Influenza

Avian Influenza and Backyard Bird Feeders

Avian Influenza in Wild Birds: Feeding wild birds in your backyard – Environment and Climate Change Canada

Avian Influenza Outbreak 2022-2023: Should You Take Down Your Bird Feeders? – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Safe Feeding Environment – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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