There is a new strain of avian flu on Nantucket—and it is more dangerous to wild birds than previous strains.
Dr. Sarah Bois of the Linda Loring Nature Foundation and the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) task force are tracking the strain on the island, which has been detected in numerous bird species. “The concern is that more wild birds have been found with [this strain] than other incarnations,” Bois said.
The last avian flu outbreak in North America killed over 50 million domestic birds but only resulted in 98 detections in wild birds. Over 2,000 wild birds have already tested positive during the current outbreak, which began in December of 2021. “And that’s only the ones tested, so we know the problem is much bigger,” Bois said.
At first, the outbreak seemed to be clustered in waterfowl like geese, and there has been speculation about whether the disease can be transmitted through water. But it has spread beyond waterfowl, and many bird species are now being impacted, including crows and potentially even songbirds.
“The good news so far is that we haven’t found any dead...songbirds,” Bois said, suggesting that if songbirds are carrying the virus, they may not be suffering high mortality rates.
Bois and other researchers on Nantucket are still collecting data and samples from potentially infected birds on island to determine what steps should be taken to curb the outbreak. Bois expects to have updates in the Fall or Winter, depending on how backed up off-island labs are.
Until then, Bois recommends that all island residents follow any guidance from the Department of Fish and Game and local health authorities. Right now, there are no recommendations to take down bird feeders or bird baths, although Bois does recommend changing the water in bird baths regularly to minimize risk.
“It’s a good practice anyway, considering that algae grow on [bird baths] so easily,” she said.
The CDC says that avian flu poses minimal risk to humans. So far during the outbreak, there has only been one human case in the United States, and the subject was directly handling infected poultry. They had mild symptoms and recovered quickly.
“The main thing...is not to touch wild birds that are already dead or look like they are sick or are acting funny,” Bois said. “We’re constantly telling people to leave birds alone.”
This guidance applies not just to humans but also dogs and cats. Keeping animals away from dead birds will protect them and help prevent the illness from spreading.
It is even more critical to keep domestic poultry away from wild birds—dead or alive. Once avian flu infects domestic bird populations, it spreads rapidly and is highly deadly, as they are more susceptible to the disease.
“There are some recommendations for people to put a net on top of their flock,” Bois said. Other mitigation strategies include limiting the number of people handling domestic poultry, cleaning poultry housing and equipment, and eliminating any standing water nearby.
Bois and the other researchers are still collecting birds for testing, so if you come across a bird you believe to be infected, you can call the Offshore Animal Hospital at 508-372-8464 to report it.