Preparing for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza

Above: TRC’s Avian Ambassador Owly, a 22-year-old Great Horned Owl. Great Horned Owls are among the most common raptors that have died from HPAI. Photo Credit: Cecil Holmes

As wild birds make their way back from migration, the concern over the spread of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), a deadly virus, becomes top of mind for raptor centers like Teton Raptor Center, as well as wildlife officials, hunters, falconers, and more. This disease is deadly to raptors, poultry, and many mammals. It is often spread by waterfowl that may or may not show symptoms, depending on the strain. Transmission to humans is very rare.

HPAI is shed in the feces, mucus, and saliva of infected birds and is transmitted to other birds via ingestion or inhalation. When mammals contract the disease, it is likely from ingesting infected birds. Symptoms in infected birds are broad but often include lack of coordination, a tilting head, and sometimes diarrhea, swelling of the head, and lethargy. Raptors and domestic poultry often die within 24 hours of becoming infected.

In anticipation of increased cases of HPAI this spring, Teton Raptor Center applied for and received two grants from the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole (CFJH). The first was a microgrant to cover the cost of retrofitting one of our outdoor enclosures into a quarantine zone. Now, when new birds come in for rehabilitation, we can treat, test, and quarantine them while keeping the rest of the birds safe from possible infection. A second grant through the CFJH was a Youth Philanthropy Grant to cover the costs of replacing supplies and beefing up personal protective equipment following the deaths of two of our American Kestrels from HPAI at the end of 2022.

Since the start of 2023,  twenty-eight wild birds in Wyoming have tested positive for HPAI, with none reported in Teton County. The affected birds were mostly Red-tailed Hawks, Canada Geese, and Great Horned Owls, and included one Golden Eagle. In addition, four mountain lions and a red fox in Wyoming have died from HPAI this year. Domestic cats and dogs can also contract the disease, as evidenced by the reported deaths of three domestic cats in Wyoming this year. TRC has submitted samples from eight rehab cases this year, and fortunately all were negative.

Here are a few things you can do to help reduce the spread of HPAI, support our work to keep wild birds wild, and keep your pets safe:

1. Donate to support the purchase of critical quarantine supplies and to help us cover the cost of submitting samples for testing.

2. If you see dead or dying birds, especially raptors or groups of waterfowl, don’t pick them up. Contact your local wildlife rehab or game warden. For residents of Wyoming, you can submit reports of suspected HPAI here.

3. Keep your cats and dogs under your supervision to prevent them from eating dead or dying birds that may have HPAI. 

4. According to the USDA APHIS National Wildlife Disease Program, it’s OK to put bird feeders out as long as you don’t have backyard poultry (see next point). Songbirds make up less than 2% of total cases of HPAI, so the risk of transmission at bird feeders is low. Always keep bird feeders clean and choose hanging feeders rather than platform feeders. Hanging feeders allow fecal matter to fall below the feeder where it is less likely to be ingested by other birds. 

5. If you have chickens or other backyard poultry, don’t use wild bird feeders. Although it’s rare for songbirds to contract HPAI, attracting wild birds to your property increases the risk of transmission to your flock. You should also clean up any spilled food that might attract wild birds to your home.  6. If you’re a hunter, falconer, or game bird farmer, check out Wyoming Game and Fish’s HPAI recommendations specifically for you here.

Teton Raptor Center’s HPAI Quarantine Zone, a retrofitted outdoor bird enclosure. Created with a grant from the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole.  Photo credit: TRC Staff.

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