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Early signs of avian influenza impacting waterfowl in Lethbridge

Last winter, hundreds of birds died from avian influenza in Lethbridge and according to experts the risks associated with the deadly virus are starting to re-appear.

Dr. Everett Hanna at the School of Environmental Sciences at Lethbridge College says, “We’re just starting to see I think the prevalence or at least the effects of the disease on waterfowl’s sort of spiking.”

Hanna says the infection typically spreads when there’s a conglomerate of birds together, when the weather is tough and when there is poor access to food.

The Government of Canada estimates that nearly 10,922,500 birds in flocks have been impacted from the avian flu as of Dec. 14, with 1,858,000 birds affected in Alberta alone.

However, Hanna says this past spring wasn’t as bad as some people had anticipated in terms of deaths, and indicates the summer was also quite quiet, which is typical for that time of year. The fall is when they tend to see a spike in cases.

“This year, it’s been very dry,” said Hannah. “Very warm without the expectation of October I guess. So, we haven’t really seen that stress yet so we’ll see what will be written in terms of this year’s story. Certainly, last year, this time we saw a real cold snap, a couple of them, but one in particular this time last year, really nailed the birds pretty hard.”

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Local birder, Ken Orich is a volunteer for the Christmas Bird Count and says he’s already come across numerous dead birds or ones showing early signs of infection around Lethbridge.

“This year, we started noticing dead geese and ducks on Henderson Lake probably about a month ago, but during the day of the bird count, which was on Saturday, Dec. 16, participants said they noticed around 20 or so dead birds,” said Orich.

He continued, “I was at Henderson yesterday, and I saw probably at least 40 and you know a lot more birds with symptoms, from my understanding the symptoms are lethargy. You know birds are off by themselves, they can hardly lift their necks, or their neck will almost look like it’s all twisted and broken but it’s not. Or they’re swimming in circles, that’s a definite indicator. So, it looks like it’s coming back.”

In the past Hanna, and his team of students from the college have partnered with the City of Lethbridge to research and take samples of birds to study and identify the cause of death.

As the first indications of the virus are being observed, he shares they are in conversation with the city to possibly continue field work this winter if things increase in prevalence as they have so far.

“We’re in a bit of a waiting pattern right now but that’s not by coincidence that’s kind of how we approach this in any case we’re doing surveillance and monitoring to keep a check on what’s happening,” said Hannah. “But there’s really not much we can do in any case.”

There is no cure for infected birds, he says.

“We see geese dying from this disease, but really ducks are thought to be the primary reservoir of it in the wild,” explained Hanna. “They just tend to have better immunocompetence to it, so they don’t tend to have as many negative outcomes when they get infected. It’s when it spills over into other birds that we tend to see more mortality. Interestingly, as similar as they look to the average person, they’re not that closely related at least in terms of their immunocompetence to the virus, and geese tend to have a more negative outcome as a result.”

People who come across dead or sick birds are encouraged to keep themselves and their pets a distance away from the infected animals and are encouraged to report them to the Government of Alberta by calling, 310-0000 or your local Fish and Wildlife Office.

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