Avian influenza suspected as hundreds of dead birds found on N.B. shores

·6 min read
Lewnanny Richardson, a biologist and the species-at-risk program director with Nature NB, says he has counted around 350 dead birds in recent days.  (Shane Magee/CBC - image credit)
Lewnanny Richardson, a biologist and the species-at-risk program director with Nature NB, says he has counted around 350 dead birds in recent days. (Shane Magee/CBC - image credit)

Through his binoculars, Lewnanny Richardson scans the Factorie à Bastien beach on New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula.

The biologist with Nature NB spots what he's looking for a few hundred metres down the shore and adds one more to his total: 350 dead birds since May 25.

"I've been with Nature NB for the last 22 years," Richardson said. "I've never seen that."

It's part of a series of discoveries of dead birds along the shore from the northeastern city of Bathurst, south to Port Elgin near Nova Scotia. No hard numbers are available, though an estimated 1,000 of one species have been found in recent weeks.

WATCH | Biologist concerned as hundreds of dead birds wash ashore

Similar discoveries were made around the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the shores of Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and western Newfoundland.

Avian influenza, or H5N1, is the suspected culprit in New Brunswick. The viral infection also known as bird flu spreads easily among birds and affects wild and domesticated species. The virus spreads by bird secretions and droppings.

Richardson walks the Acadian Peninsula shore as part of a piping plover survey and normally counts 20 dead birds per summer.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

On May 25, Richardson and his summer students counted three. Then more. Early on, he logged things like GPS co-ordinates for each one. Now he takes a photo, some basic notes, and keeps counting.

Most of the birds are northern gannets, which aren't normally found in New Brunswick. That's the species Richardson spotted washed up on the beach in the minutes since his colleagues walked the same shoreline.

"That northern gannet just died a couple of minutes ago," Richardson said after getting closer. "It's been washed [up] by the sea, so you can see it's super fresh."

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"We're seeing a large-scale mortality event for northern gannets in the Gulf of St. Lawrence," Becky Whittam, manager of the wildlife and habitat section at Environment and Climate Change Canada, said in an interview.

Whittam said an estimated 1,000 gannets have been found dead on New Brunswick's east coast. There have been "thousands" reported around the gulf region.

"Everybody is completely overwhelmed right now with just keeping up with these large scale mortalities," said Megan Jones.

Jones is the Atlantic regional director for Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and an assistant professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island.

Jones has been involved in necropsies, or examinations, and testing a small number of the birds from New Brunswick.

Jones said changes in the northern gannets brains, livers, lungs and other organs are consistent with avian influenza. Almost all are preliminary positive results through PCR testing, the same type of testing that was used for COVID-19.

Samples are sent to a lab in Winnipeg for confirmation.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

Gannets found dead in Quebec and Prince Edward Island have been confirmed to have highly pathogenic avian influenza, Whittam said.

Kaitlyn Lemay was on her lunch break Tuesday at the wharf in Saint-Édouard-de-Kent when she spotted Department of Natural Resources staff using all-terrain vehicles on the beach.

Curious, she approached and asked what happened. Lemay says she was told they had collected about 200 dead birds from the area around 100 kilometres south of where Richardson has been counting dead birds.

Lemay said she was told the birds were northern gannets, cormorants and other sea birds.

She saw a trailer loaded with black garbage bags she said were full of dead birds.

"I have never seen this many dead birds on the beach," Lemay said in an interview.

The provincial Department of Natural Resources deferred an interview request to the federal government.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

A few kilometres down the coast from the wharf is the picturesque Bouctouche Dunes and boardwalk.

Joanne Jaillet works at the Irving Eco-Centre where 50 to 60 dead birds, mainly northern gannets, have been found over about a week on the beach where they do guided tours with school children.

"I've been working here for 24 years now, and this is the first for us that so many birds are being picked up on the beach," Jaillet said.

Back on the Acadian Peninsula, a Department of Natural Resources staff member was using an all-terrain vehicle to drive down the beach and collect the dead birds Thursday, placing them in black garbage bags.

The bags were piled into the back of a pickup truck. Bags filled with dead birds were starting to fill a dumpster outside the DNR office in nearby Tracadie.

Richardson said the birds will be buried at a landfill to reduce the chance of infecting other animals.

Richardson said seeing species he's worked with for two decades dying in front of him is disturbing.

"I was saying to one of my staff yesterday, I would love to hug them and say, 'It's OK, you can die. Don't be afraid.'"

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

Jones said the number of deaths is extremely unusual for the region.

"We have never had an outbreak like this. We've never had an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Atlantic Canada, anyway. But certainly, we've never seen one at this scale."

The dead gannets are believed to be from a nesting colony on Bonaventure Island off Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula.

It's one of six gannet colonies in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. There are no colonies in New Brunswick. The birds, which are not considered endangered, fly from the island and feed at sea before returning to feed their young.

Whittam said there are an estimated 200,000 breeding gannets in Canada.

"They can withstand some of that mortality and bounce back in future years," Whittam said. "But we are keeping a close eye on the situation."

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

Another large colony is just off the Magdalen Islands, which Jones said is the suspected source of gannets coming ashore on Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.

Jones said the virus, or one similar to it, has circulated in Europe for a few years and showed up in Newfoundland before Christmas. Since then, it has spread across the Maritimes, Canada and most of the United States.

Jones and Whittam said a large number of scientists and officials in Canada are involved in tracking and trying to understand the bird deaths.

"We're looking at just characterizing exactly what the virus is doing to all of these animals," Jones said.

"There are also people looking at what's happening on the bird colonies going out on the ground to actually try to quantify this thing."

University of Prince Edward Island/Submitted
University of Prince Edward Island/Submitted

Avian influenza has prompted alarm about potential harm to poultry production. The highly pathogenic avian influenza was found in a small flock of chickens about 20 kilometres south of Moncton this spring.

A control zone that restricted live birds, bird products or byproducts from being moved into or out of the area was lifted this week.

Jones said they've started seeing foxes test positive on Prince Edward Island, believed to be the result of eating sick birds. The risk to humans is considered low.

Those interviewed all warned anyone who finds a sick or dead wild bird to not touch them.

Nick Brown, a spokesperson for the New Brunswick government, said in an email the province would respond to calls about dead birds on a case-by-case basis.

Jones said anyone walking dogs should be careful to keep them away from sick or dead birds.

The province said the birds should be reported to the Department of Natural Resources at 1-833-301-0334.

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