The State We're In

New flu outbreak could affect New Jersey birds

Mar 31, 2022

By Tom Gilbert, Co-Executive Director

There’s a new virus going around – one that people should be aware of but not necessarily worried about catching. No, it’s not another Covid-19 variant!

New Jersey wildlife and agriculture officials are keeping their eyes on an outbreak of a bird flu that’s affecting both wild and domestic birds in 20 states – mostly along the “Atlantic flyway” migration corridor, including this state we’re in.

So far, the “highly pathogenic avian influenza” (HPAI) has not resulted in any confirmed bird deaths in New Jersey. But it may just be a matter of time. Dr. Nicole Lewis, pathologist for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, is testing a group of brant geese recently found dead.

“We know that we have it here,” she said, explaining that wild waterfowl and shorebirds are considered “natural reservoirs” of avian influenza, but they often don’t develop symptoms. For example, a sampling of wild ducks in New Jersey that were trapped for testing came back positive for the bird flu. However, the ducks showed no signs of being sick.

But, as with Covid-19, infected individuals without symptoms can still spread the disease to others.

Dr. Lewis was first alerted to the HPAI a few months ago, after a mixed flock of about 300 birds in Newfoundland, Canada, was struck by sudden illness. “It was a menagerie of birds and they all died,” she said.

The bird flu causes neurological symptoms, including seizures, falling over, twitching and having difficulty flying. Most birds that display symptoms perish within 24 to 48 hours.

The wild birds considered most at risk include eagles, snow geese, snowy owls, mergansers, swans, mallard ducks, vultures, hawks, gulls and shorebirds.

In eastern Pennsylvania, the HPAI virus was just confirmed in a bald eagle found dead in Chester County. A diagnosis is pending on five hooded mergansers recovered in a northwestern Pennsylvania lake; four were found dead and the fifth was euthanized after showing neurologic symptoms. Cases have also been reported in wild birds in New York and Maryland.

Fortunately, the disease doesn’t seem to affect backyard feeder birds like chickadees, cardinals and finches, according to Dr. Lewis. “Songbirds tend to be resistant, so we don’t need to worry about them being impacted,” she said.

Perhaps the most vulnerable bird populations are domestic poultry – chickens, ducks and turkeys – including flocks that many New Jerseyans raise in their backyards to produce eggs.

“HPAI spreads through contact with bodily secretions, including feces and ocular, nasal, or oral secretions from infected birds,” according to an advisory from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. “The virus can be spread on vehicles, equipment, shoes, etc. Practicing good biosecurity can help prevent the spread of HPAI onto your farm.”

Droppings from wild birds flying over domestic poultry flocks are believed to have contributed to the spread of the disease.

While HPAI can potentially infect humans, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that the current bird flu outbreak poses little risk to the health of the general public.

“There’s always the risk, but it’s quite low,” Dr. Lewis said. The people most likely to contract cases of avian influenza, she said, are those who work in close contact with birds.

New Jersey volunteers who work with birds – or even just observe them – are being made aware of the disease as a precaution. For example, biologist Larissa Smith of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey is alerting volunteers who monitor bald eagle nests throughout the state.

“We just want everyone to know the disease is out there and they’ve got to be careful,” Smith said, especially if they come across dead or injured birds.

What should members of the public do if they encounter sick or dead birds?

“If you find a bird that seems very depressed or down, or if you approach them and they don’t fly away, that could be a neurological symptom,” said Dr. Lewis.

For sick or injured birds, search online for “New Jersey wildlife rehabilitators” and call the facility nearest the location of the sick bird. To report dead birds, call the state Department of Environmental Protection’s hotline at 1-877-WARNDEP. Dead birds should not be touched or picked up!

To learn more about avian influenza and see a map of cases, go to www.usgs.gov/centers/nwhc/science/distribution-highly-pathogenic-avian-influenza-north-america-20212022#overview. More information can be found at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture website at www.nj.gov/agriculture/divisions/ah/diseases/avian_influenza.html and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife website at www.nj.gov/dep/fgw/birdflu.htm.

And for information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.