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State wildlife officials ask for public's help in avian flu outbreak

Volunteers build birdhouses in Canton as part of the 2013 Rouge Rescue clean-up event. This year's event will take place on May 17 and surrounding days.
Cyndi Ross
Friends of the Rouge

First off, please don’t pick up any random dead birds right now, OK?

“Just don’t handle dead birds,” said Ed Golder, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Golder spoke with Michigan Radio in the midst of the worst U.S. outbreak of avian flu in seven years. The DNR is also asking people to tell them if they come across “unusual or unexplained” deaths in wild birds. “It’s a good idea to take precautions like that,” Golder said.

Already some 28 million birds in at least 24 states have died in the ongoing epidemic, either from the virus itself or from poultry farmers culling flocks to keep the disease from spreading further.

Bird flu, or highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) poses “low risk” to humans, according to the CDC.

“To date, there have not been any cases of the HPAI H5 in people in the U.S. or in Michigan,” said Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“In 2021, there was one person in the U.K. who had no symptoms of illness but had exposure to HPAI H5 infected birds and tested positive for the virus in a nasal swab. Avian flu viruses do not normally infect people, but there have been rare instances of human infections,” Sutfin said.

But the threat to poultry is already pushing up egg prices, according to newsreports, and killing wild birds as well.

“All birds are potentially susceptible to HPAI, [but] some are more likely than others to become infected and die,” Golder said. “Domestic birds, and some wild birds like waterfowl, raptors, and scavengers are highly susceptible and have been particularly affected by the disease.”

Song birds you’d typically see migrating back to Michigan now are “unlikely to play a significant role in spreading the virus,” he said. “But there are things that we honestly don't know, and surveillance and testing for the disease in that group of birds is less common. So we've got a little bit of a knowledge gap.”

The Bird Flu outbreak has prompted state wildlife officials to suggest that Michiganders might want to take down their bird feeders.

Golder said bird feeders could be a "vector" for the disease, meaning they could help the virus that causes it spread among birds.

“Temporarily removing those food sources could be helpful, especially anyone who has a high susceptible species like domestic poultry, raptors, [or] water fowl living nearby," said Golder.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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