Newfoundland's puffin rescue patrol paused as avian flu kills thousands of seabirds

·3 min read

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A celebrated annual initiative in Newfoundland to rescue lost baby puffins has been suspended after hundreds of dead seabirds have washed up along the island's shores.

The local Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's puffin and petrel patrols in Witless Bay bring hundreds of eager volunteers from all over the province and the country to help scoop up the disoriented little birds from the town's roadways. But with the highly pathogenic H5N1 avian flu making its way through Newfoundland's wild seabird population, Suzanne Dooley, the organization's conservation director, said it was just too risky to run the program this year.

"It was a hard, sad decision for us to make," Dooley said in a recent interview. "We are not 100 per cent sure if these birds are carriers, or if they will be, but we can't put our people in jeopardy."

The H5N1 avian flu first appeared in Newfoundland in December, when it was confirmed at a farm in the St. John's area. Officials said at the time it was the first detection of the virus in Canada since 2015. It has since spread to several farms across the country, and now it has reached wild seabirds.

Beverly Dawe, the province's chief veterinary officer, said in a recent interview that preliminary tests this month indicate the flu is behind a "very significant mortality event" that killed thousands of seabirds along Newfoundland's Burin and Avalon Peninsulas. The disease killed murres, razorbills and even gannets -- graceful white diving birds with black-tipped wings and sharp, ghost-grey beaks.

Last week, dead kittiwake gulls washed up on the shores in Witless Bay, a seaside town of about 1,600 people about 35 kilometres south of St. John's. Dawe said samples from those birds have been taken to the lab, and results are expected next week. However, her team is proceeding on the assumption that avian flu is to blame, she said.

It's worrisome news for the community of Witless Bay, where puffins are a big part of the town's tourism economy. Several boat tours take visitors from the Witless Bay harbour to nearby Gull Island, where hundreds of thousands of the plump, orange-billed birds huddle around their grassy burrows, or splash their short wings furiously in the water, trying to build enough momentum to lift up into the air.

Gull Island is part of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, which is home to the largest Atlantic puffin colony in North America — over 260,000 puffin couples spend their summers in the reserve.

By August, their eggs have likely hatched and the babies are learning to fly. They navigate using light from the moon and the stars, but light from the cars and houses in Witless Bay can cause them to veer off course. Enter the puffin patrol, which invites volunteers to scoop the waddling birds off the roads and land. The puffins are then brought back to the water to be released.

Up to 1,000 people sign up to be part of the patrols each year, Dooley said. But this year, there will likely be no volunteers from the public. Instead, trained staff will be on hand to rescue the birds, she said.

"We're asking people to be patient with us, because we only have so many trained staff," she said. "It may take a while to get to some of these birds, but we're trying as best we can to accommodate the situation."

Even beyond the local tourism industry, Dooley said residents in the area are concerned about the avian flu and its possible impacts on the reserve. After all, the reserve and its seabirds are part of the community's identity.

"If you go around to the communities, you'll see the puffin logo, there's a puffin festival which is ongoing now. We have facilities that are named after puffins, and streets," she said. "They take a lot of pride in it, because it's in their back door."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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