Commercial poultry producers, zoological institutions, wildlife conservationists, and wildlife rehabilitators across the country are doing all they can to stop the spread of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). This includes educating the public about this avian virus that is largely spread by migrating birds.
The veterinarians and rehabilitators at the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Clarke County, Virginia, are among those who want individuals – especially anyone who has chickens, ducks, turkeys, or other domestic birds – to assist in protecting all birds.
“Positive cases of HPAI have been confirmed all over the U.S. with many along the Atlantic Flyway,” said Dr. Jen Riley, director of Veterinary Services at the Center. “It was confirmed in Virginia in January, and it was recently found in a domestic flock in Fauquier County, located at Clarke County’s southeastern border.”
Dr. Riley said avian influenza is not a new disease, but there are major outbreaks every few years with various subtypes and this type is particularly hard on wildlife.
The HPAI virus is highly contagious between birds, and while close to 100% fatal in some species, other species carry and shed the virus with no obvious signs. Birds carry the virus in respiratory secretions, saliva, and fecal material.
Wild waterfowl, including ducks, geese, and shorebirds, are the most common carriers of the virus, although they often show no signs of illness. Infection and illness can be more severe in birds of prey, such as hawks and owls, and scavengers such as crows and gulls.
Spring migration increases the spread of HPAI to new areas. “The virus is easily transmissible and can be devastating to domestic and wild birds,” said Dr. Riley.
HPAI can infect humans, but this subtype is considered relatively low risk to humans. The much greater risk is that people will spread the virus via their shoes and clothing as well as shared farm equipment and tools.
What can you do to protect domestic and wild birds?
“If you have chickens or other fowl, keep them as contained as possible,” Dr. Riley said, noting a 90-100 percent mortality rate in chickens with HPAI. “Do not visit one farm and then be among your birds. Do not share farm equipment and change clothes and shoes before tending to your own birds if you have been anywhere with other poultry.”
She urges adults to not buy ducklings or chicks as Easter gifts for children. This is never a good idea, but can be even more dangerous with a disease like this circulating.
“A confirmed case on our property could have dire effects for our patients and ambassadors. After consulting with other wildlife hospitals and wildlife-related government agencies, we have decided not to treat the most susceptible species at this time. This is primarily waterfowl and shorebirds,” Dr. Riley said. “We will admit raptors and corvids, but with greatly increased safety measures.”
Additionally, the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center itself has implemented policies and procedures to reduce the risk of HPAI at its veterinary hospital and rehabilitation facility in Boyce.
Access to the building and outdoor enclosures is limited and Wildlife Walk tours are temporarily on hold. Staff and volunteers are following strict guidelines, including outdoor triage of new avian patients. There are bleach foot baths between rooms, and movement from the lobby and classroom to the hospital area of the building is restricted.
“If we do have a positive HPAI case in the Center, federal response may require immediate closure and complete depopulation,” said Executive Director Annie Bradfield. Depopulation means euthanasia of all birds on the premises, including the beloved owls and raptors kept as education ambassadors.
“We have no control over or say in these decisions,” Bradfield added. “We do not currently have known cases of HPAI in Clarke County, but we take patients from all over northern Virginia, including counties with positive cases. Because the consequences may be so severe, we need to err on the side of extreme caution.”
What should you do if you find injured or seemingly unwell wild animals?
“If you’re calling us because an animal appears ill or injured, please bring it to us,” Dr. Riley said. “If it is suffering, it will die in the wild and not in a pleasant way. Euthanasia is always a better option than allowing a wild animal to suffer.”
Blue Ridge Wildlife Center staff plead with the public to leave all healthy wild animals alone, even babies whose mothers are not in plain sight. Always call before intervening as human interference with wild animals generally does more harm than good.
The Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Boyce is the only licensed wildlife hospital in Northern Virginia, and it is one of only three licensed wildlife-exclusive hospitals in the state. With a skilled staff of veterinarians, licensed wildlife rehabilitators, and administrators, the Center handles calls and accepts injured and ill animals from across the region.
In 2021 alone, the BRWC team treated 3,331 native wildlife patients – a 16.3 percent increase from 2020. Injuries ranged from eye infections to gunshot wounds, and BRWC staff raised hundreds of orphaned or injured babies, all with the goal of releasing every animal back into its natural habitat. “Our patients avoid immense suffering because of our care and the compassion of finders,” said Bradfield.
The Blue Ridge Wildlife Center is a not-for-profit organization that depends solely on the generosity of the community to continue its work. Contact the Center at (540) 837-9000 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at blueridgewildlifectr.org.