Avian flu is devastating N.L.'s birds. This biologist has some ideas on how to curb it

·3 min read
Thousands of gannets, puffins and murres have died from avian influenza in Newfoundland and Labrador this summer. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Thousands of gannets, puffins and murres have died from avian influenza in Newfoundland and Labrador this summer. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

It has been a disastrous summer for Newfoundland and Labrador's bird populations.

Thousands of gannets, puffins and murres, which once overran seaside cliffs that now sit half-empty, have died from avian influenza.

Memorial University biology professor Ian Jones is one of the experts watching the tragedy unfold.

"We're a little bit helpless as to responding tactically to it. In other words, we can't offer the birds a vaccine, we can't try to rehabilitate birds that are ill," Jones said Thursday.

"All we can do right now is count carcasses."

Jones has come up with three suggestions that he thinks could reduce the spread of the fast-spreading and deadly strain of the virus.

First, the province should halt the hunting of the common murre, one of the species most impacted by the spread of the virus.

Like most seabirds, said Jones, murres — also known as turrs — need to live about four or five years before it's able to breed. As the avian flu spreads through the population, killing younger murres, there are few left to breed and replace the adult birds killed by the virus.

Even then, said Jones, most seabirds have a clutch size of only one egg, so they are unable to easily replace adult birds killed in a flu outbreak.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

He said Newfoundland and Labrador's annual murre hunt needs to be carefully managed over the next few years and account for the loss of a substantial proportion of the population.

"I would like to see a halt in the hunt while we consider what's going on," said Jones.

"If we have thousands of hunters pursuing and hunting murres, which have already been devastated by the virus, that's not good for the hunt and that's not good for the birds."

Landfills 

In recent months, government officials have asked people to take down their backyard bird feeders and stop feeding birds in parks to prevent birds from congregating and potentially causing the flu situation to get worse.

Preventing birds from grouping in large numbers is good idea, said Jones, but landfills are a much bigger problem than backyard bird feeders.

"The idea that congregating huge numbers of birds in concentrated locations by feeding them is likely to be a problem, I'm totally on board with that," he said.

"In St. John's, at the Robin Hood Bay landfill, we have tens of thousands of gulls congregating on basically free food all year, especially in the winter. Those birds are interacting with each other and I hypothesize that that's a giant avian flu spreader."

Covering up garbage at landfills would reduce the number of gulls and, in turn, reduce the virus's spread

Farming concerns

Lastly, industrial agriculture, such as chicken farms, are a source of high spread, said Jones.

"It's the interaction between wild birds and the commercial poultry industry that is particularly tragic right now. The farmers, especially on the Prairies, had to do huge culls related to this because avian flu got into their flocks," he said.  "It's economically devastating."

Jones said the commercial operators could protect themselves and other businesses by improving their flocks' bio-security.

"Absolutely prevent any contact between wild birds and commercial poultry, ducks, things like that," he said.

"It's tragic but unfortunately that means a lot of outdoor operations will have to drastically change."

Impact of the virus uncertain

Earlier this summer, Chris Mooney, who was an interpretation officer at the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve for two decades, said the population had taken a big hit due to the disease.

"They live an average of 30 years and the mate for life, so we're losing mates," he said at the time. "We don't know the impact. Nobody knows the impact."

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