Pandemic flu kills Montana birds

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I spent a year teaching at MSU-Billings. This campus was a very lively place for wildlife.

The Billings Canal that crosses the campus is a haven for waterfowl. Mule deer are also frequent visitors. There are more than a few muleys making a living in this part of town. We’re not talking about Helena or Cody, Wyo., Urban Deer levels, but it’s common to see them heading for the rimrocks on the north side of town.

The most common semi-wild species on the MSUB campus, at least when I was there, were turkeys. The flocks that roam the campus look like wild turkeys, but I learned this week that the birds are actually wild crosses between Merriam birds and domestic birds.

I learned this because these birds are making headlines. Unfortunately, several dead turkeys were found in the area west of campus. A resident found one dead in his yard and assumed it had been hit by a car. When he found another, he alerted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

FWP game wardens searched the neighborhood and found seven more. Three were sent to the lab for testing, and the turkeys were found to have died of bird flu.

The Centers for Disease Control announced in January a confirmed case of bird flu in a wild American duck in South Carolina. It was the first case of the virus in wild birds in the United States since 2016.

Bird flu has been detected in wild birds in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. Cases include snow and Canada geese. In Wyoming, a red-headed vulture has succumbed to the disease. Influenza does not appear to be widely lethal in wild birds, but wild birds can transmit it to domestic flocks. With the spring waterfowl migration underway, that seems to be what is happening.

Unfortunately, more than 40 species of wild birds have been confirmed infected with the disease. Most cases are confined to waterfowl, birds feeding on waterfowl, or in the case of this red-headed vulture, birds feeding on dead waterfowl.

The presence of the disease in wild turkeys means spring hunters need to be extra careful. It is not known if the disease can spread from a wild bird to a hunter dressing a carcass. In the absence of definitive evidence that it is transmissible, hunters are advised to avoid killing birds that appear weak or sickly. And hunters should probably pull out their remaining PPE in case they fill out their tag. Wearing an N95 mask and protective gloves, as well as washing thoroughly after dressing a bird, are precautions to take, just to be safe.

The disease spread from domestic poultry to humans who worked closely with domestic flocks. A nasal swab from a Colorado man tested positive for bird flu, but it’s unclear if he was actually infected. He is being treated with antivirals and appears largely asymptomatic, according to a Denver Post article.

The case is related to a commercial poultry operation in Colorado. This herd has been destroyed.

Avian flu is deadly for domestic flocks. In March, an egg factory in Iowa killed 5.3 million laying hens in response to an outbreak. The case attracted international attention because many birds were killed by shutting off the ventilation of the barns that housed the chickens and allowing the temperature to rise above 104 degrees, which is deadly for the birds.

It sounds like a horrible way to do it.

The disease could threaten Montana’s egg production industry. Many of these producers are in Hutterite colonies and supply eggs to the popular Wilcox brand, as well as Costco.

I hope this bird flu epidemic does not result in massive losses to wild birds or domestic flocks for that matter. I love these semi-wild college turkeys.

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