Hundreds of birds dead or dying of avian flu land on Cape Breton shores

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More than 300 northern gannets infected with H5N1 — known as avian influenza or bird flu — have been found dead or dying along Nova Scotia's Cape Breton shoreline. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press - image credit)
More than 300 northern gannets infected with H5N1 — known as avian influenza or bird flu — have been found dead or dying along Nova Scotia's Cape Breton shoreline. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Ocean-going birds infected with avian influenza are washing up dead on Nova Scotia shores and provincial officials are worried the highly contagious disease will now spread among local bird populations.

Thousands of northern gannets from a colony in the Magdalen Islands have died of the flu over the last couple of weeks and Quebec's Wildlife Ministry says hundreds of them are confirmed cases of H5N1 — known as avian flu.

Elizabeth Walsh, a biologist with Nova Scotia's Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, said more than 300 dead or dying gannets have been found along the province's shoreline and there is concern the disease will spread locally.

"We have more probability of avian influenza in our water birds such as waterfowl and gulls and then when we do have birds like the gannets, when they die on shore, scavengers such as bald eagles [and] our other birds of prey can also succumb to avian influenza," she said.

Some infected gannets have been found in Pictou and Antigonish counties along the Northumberland Strait, said Walsh, but they mostly fly to parts of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton looking for food.

"We've seen a large number of gannets washing up on our shores and I am concerned about what repercussions this could have on their population," she said.

There are no confirmed cases in local shorebird populations, but officials are concerned about the potential for spread among nesting species such as endangered piping plovers.

Submitted by Elizabeth Walsh
Submitted by Elizabeth Walsh

The department is planning to conduct a count on Tuesday of nesting colonies on the Bird Islands just off Cape Breton, where puffins, razorbills and guillemots can be found.

Anyone who finds a dead or dying bird should not touch it and should keep pets away from them, said Walsh.

She recommended calling the department's toll-free line at 1-800-565-2224 to report the location where birds are found and DNR officials will clean them up.

Signs of disease in animals

According to Quebec's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources website, the disease causes few signs in birds. However, the ministry says infected birds may have a lack of energy or appetite, decreased egg production, coughing, sneezing, diarrhea or a lack of co-ordination.

The virus spreads by bird secretions and droppings, says the ministry.

The ministry says there is a low chance of humans becoming infected after having contact with the birds but people who do come in contact with any bird should wash their hands with soap and hot water or an alcohol solution.

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