Bird Flu

January 2, 2010

The North American situation from Rob Fergus, Science Coordinator Audubon at Home, National Audubon Science Office

Spring is coming, and recent media reports have made claims that wild birds in Europe or Asia will be bringing bird flu to North America with them in the upcoming migration.

While a few Old World bird species do mingle with North American birds in Alaska and Greenland each summer, none of these species are known to carry the H5N1 bird flu virus on long migratory journeys.

This means that there is a small chance that an infected bird might be able to reach Alaska or Greenland and transmit the virus to American birds, though most ornithologists think that bird flu is much more likely to spread by way of illegal shipments of poultry or poultry products.

Since the virus does not appear to be easily spread even among members of the same wild bird flock (one study in China last winter found only six birds infected out of over 13,000 tested), even if the virus were to appear in ducks or geese in Alaska or Greenland, there is little chance that it would spread throughout North America, or that humans in North America would be at risk.

Government scientists will be testing birds in Alaska this summer to watch for the possible arrival of the H5N1 bird flu, and will let us all know what they find, but for now there is no evidence to suggest that backyard birdwatchers should worry about this virus coming to them by way of their backyard birds.

Avian Flu not a danger for bird watchers or feeders in North America

Sioux Falls, SD – Consumers who enjoy watching and feeding backyard birds are not in danger of contracting the Avian Flu, according to Dr. David Bonter of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. “The spread of the H5N1 strain of the flu across Asia and Europe is certainly a cause for concern. However, there has not been a documented case of the H5N1 strain in wild birds in North America. There is no need to be concerned about feeding birds,” he stated.

Rob Fergus, Science Coordinator with the National Audubon Science Office, concurred with the Cornell findings. “The wild birds most likely to harbor or spread avian influenza are ducks and other waterfowl, often referred to as wild birds. There is a distinction between wild waterfowl, and the wild birds at our feeders,” he said. “At this point in time, there is no evidence humans are at serious risk of contracting avian flu from backyard birds or bird feeding.”

The Wild Bird Feeding Industry recognizes consumers may be concerned about the possibility of contracting H5N1 from their backyard feeders. “Human infections have occurred in people who have been closely associated with infected poultry. Not the wild birds at the feeder,” noted Susan Hays, Executive Director of the WBFI.

The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and numerous other international organizations are closely monitoring the spread and transmission of the H5N1 strain of influenza. “There is an overwhelming amount of information available on the web, and it’s good that consumers stay informed,” Steve Runnels, President/CEO of the American Birding Association stated. “This is becoming a conservation issue, and we encourage consumers here in North America to continue to feed their backyard birds.”

Wild birds accustomed to finding their favorite seed at the feeder need not be disappointed, especially with the onset of winter weather. “Base your feeding decisions on facts, not fears,” said Tom Franklin, Conservation Director with the Izaak Walton League of America. “Outdoor enthusiasts and bird feeders should continue to enjoy their activities. But remember to use common sense. Cleanliness and sanitation should be maintained at all times, whether you’re a feeder or outdoor sportsman. Keep feeding areas and feeders clean, following the recommendations of the ‘6 Steps’ program created by WBFI and other birding associations.”

Franklin’s reference to the ‘6 Steps to turn your yard into a sanctuary for birds’ is a tip sheet for feeders and includes information on maintaining healthy feeder stations. Fourteen organizations contributed to the development of the material, and it is available free to the public at

A portion of the literature reads ‘Keep feed and feeding areas clean. To help reduce the possibility of disease transmission in birds, clean feeders and feeding areas at least once a month. Plastic and metal feeders can go in the dishwasher, or rinse these and other styles with a solution of 10% bleach and warm water. Scrub birdbaths with a brush and replace water every three to five days to discourage mosquito reproduction. Rake up and dispose of seed hulls under feeders. Moving feeders periodically helps prevent the buildup of waste on the ground. Keep seed and foods dry; discard food that smells musty, is wet or looks moldy. Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every three to five days, or every other day in warm weather. It’s good hygiene to wash your hands after filling or cleaning feeders.’

“Again, it’s the common sense approach to all possible infectants, not just the avian flu,” said Paul Baicich of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “Bottom line: H5N1 has pandemic potential, but it is not a pandemic virus. The situation is worthy of concern, but not panic.”

North American birding associations include many trained ornithologists and biologists on staff, and these professionals are closely monitoring the avian flu situation. Consumers are encouraged to visit the following organizations for updated information:

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
National Wildlife Health Center
National Audubon Society
Wild Bird Feeding Industry
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
World Health Organization

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