With spring on the way, what can you do to curb the spread of avian flu?

Avian flu doesn't tend to affect birds that frequent backyard bird feeders, so hanging a feeder is relatively safe for those who don't own domestic birds. (Yvon Theriault - image credit)
Avian flu doesn't tend to affect birds that frequent backyard bird feeders, so hanging a feeder is relatively safe for those who don't own domestic birds. (Yvon Theriault - image credit)

Avian flu has not gone away in New Brunswick, and positive cases of the virus are still popping up in all three Maritime provinces, says a professor at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island.

H5N1 exploded in the region last spring among seabirds such as gannet and eiders, but it quieted down a little at the end of the summer, said Megan Jones, who is also the regional director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

But Jones said avian flu thrives in cold weather, so over the winter, she's seen a lot of positive cases in crows, as well as some cases in Canada geese that decided to stick around for the season.

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

With spring migration underway for some birds and on the horizon for others, Jones said she hopes that when the seabirds return, the avian flu won't have a significant effect.

"We're … all sort of trying to prepare for this spring and summer," Jones said.

And there are things people can do to keep avian flu under control in New Brunswick.


Jones said it's important that people report dead or sick birds to the Department of Natural Resources when they see them.

A broad variety of birds has been affected by the virus, including raptors, seabirds and ducks. The virus can spread among these birds through close proximity, aerosol transmission, ingestion and fecal-oral transmission, Jones said.

Mammals have also been known to catch the virus, although it is uncommon, she said.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

On P.E.I., Jones said, several foxes and a few skunks have tested positive for the virus.

"We assume these mammals are eating birds that have died of avian flu, and so they're getting infected that way," said Jones.

As with birds, the virus gets into the brain and can cause an animal to start behaving strangely, she said.

So if people see mammals exhibiting weird behaviour, they should report it to Natural Resources. It could be avian flu, said Jones, but it could also be something such as rabies or distemper.


As the spring weather approaches, people may be tempted to hang their bird feeders, but is it safe?

According to Jones, it is relatively safe.

"[Avian flu] doesn't tend to affect those species of birds that frequent backyard bird feeders like the small songbirds," said Jones. "So, you know, the risk of those birds getting avian flu at a bird feeder is very low."

That is, if the owner of the bird feeder doesn't also own domestic birds.

Bruce MacDougall
Bruce MacDougall

Having a bird feeder could increase the chance of getting wild birds in your backyard.

So Jones said for people who have chickens or ducks or any other domestic bird, putting up bird feeders isn't recommended.

Although regular folks don't have to fear the spread of avian flu when it comes to feeders, Jones said there are other diseases that can be transmitted at bird feeders, like the parasite trichomonas or salmonella bacteria.

Jones suggested cleaning your bird feeder regularly with soap and water and disinfecting it twice a month with one part bleach to nine parts water.

Don't touch the birds

Jones's last recommendation is for people not to handle sick or dead birds.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

Avian flu is considered low-risk to humans, said Jones, and she said there hasn't been any human transmission in Canada. But worldwide, there have been a handful of cases, she said.

For biologists and taxidermists, she said there are special health recommendations for working with birds.

But for everyday folks who might come across a dead or sick bird, Jones said to let the authorities with proper PPE take care of it.