Florida

“Tens of thousands” of Florida bird flu cases now include sandhill cranes and white pelicans

Florida’s unprecedented outbreak of a highly contagious strain of avian influenza among wild birds has spread to two other iconic species: sandhill cranes and white pelicans, wildlife officials confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday.

The birds are the latest additions to a growing list of known species – including bald eagles and great horned owls – that have been confirmed to have contracted highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI.

The fast-spreading virus is now confirmed in 35 counties and has spread among 34 wild bird species in Florida, the St. Petersburg-based Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said.

“We’ve probably lost tens of thousands of our native birds over the past year,” institute spokeswoman Carly Jones said in a statement to the Times. “Although things don’t appear to be as bad right now as they were this time last year when the virus first hit Florida, we continue to see deaths in many bird species.”

A sandhill crane searches for food in a field on Lutz Lake Fern Road in Odessa on Monday.  Avian flu was first confirmed in white pelicans and sandhill cranes.
A sandhill crane searches for food in a field on Lutz Lake Fern Road in Odessa on Monday. Avian flu was first confirmed in white pelicans and sandhill cranes. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Biologists first discovered the virus in January 2022 when hunters in Palm Beach County turned over two ducks, who had just been shot and killed, to a U.S. Department of Agriculture checkpoint for routine disease testing. The pair of blue-winged ducks were the first two animals in the state to test positive.

News of two newly infected species this week underscores the increasing reach of bird flu: Sandhill cranes, with their distinctive reddish heads and screeching horn calls, are a federally designated endangered species. White pelicans are winter visitors, arriving even from western Canada.

University of Florida researchers first reported the sandhill crane infection to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services earlier this month, Jones said. The bird was found on private property in Gainesville during the week of January 9th.

In late November, two white pelicans were found just off the coast of Cedar Key, Jones said. One was dead and the other sick and taken to a rehabilitation facility. The rehabber killed the bird based on ongoing bird flu protocols. State wildlife officials received the official test results on December 27.

“Each of the white pelicans here in Florida has flown 2,500 miles to spend the winter somewhere safe. And now they catch this deadly disease. It’s pretty sad,” said Ann Paul, president of the Tampa Audubon Society.

A year since the first infection

The epicenter of the outbreak first emerged on Florida’s Atlantic coast in early February, when hundreds of small scaup, a common North American black-headed diving duck, showed signs of neurological disorders. But recently, cases of black vultures have been on the rise in Florida, Mark Cunningham, a subdivision chief for fish and wildlife health at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told the Times in November.

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According to the commission, infected birds can spread the virus through saliva, nasal secretions and droppings. An infected black vulture will often return to its roost before dying. Then other vultures will feed on the infected carcass and continue spreading the disease, Cunningham said.

By November, at least 21 backyard flocks in 11 Florida counties had been confirmed with bird flu, according to agricultural data from Florida Department of Agriculture Madeline Brezin. This includes two herds in Hillsborough County and one in Pasco. The infected birds were mainly chickens, but there were also domestic ducks, geese, peacocks and guinea fowl.

No commercial poultry flocks in Florida have confirmed cases of bird flu, according to Scott Richardson, director of the poultry veterinary program at the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Industry Division.

“To date, there have been no commercial herds,” Richardson said by phone Tuesday. “Thank you God.”

The best way to prevent the spread of avian flu from wild populations to backyard flocks is to “limit their exposure,” Richardson said. This includes keeping them covered with protective measures such as fences.

The Wildlife Commission also reiterates this on a website dedicated to the outbreak: “Do not allow wild birds to come into contact with domestic fowl and do not keep bird feeders near domestic fowl.” Previous flock cases in Florida backyards have come from infected wild birds, Richardson said.

American white pelicans, which migrate south from as far north as Canada during the winter months, are pictured at Crescent Lake Park, where small numbers come each year.  The recent outbreak of avian influenza was first detected in these birds on Sunday, January 22, 2023 in St. Petersburg.
American white pelicans, which migrate south from as far north as Canada during the winter months, are pictured at Crescent Lake Park, where small numbers come each year. The recent outbreak of avian influenza was first detected in these birds on Sunday, January 22, 2023 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

How to prevent bird flu

There is a “low risk” of bird flu spreading to humans, state wildlife experts say. In April, a human case was confirmed in Colorado after someone who was handling poultry suspected of carrying the virus became infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The subject reported fatigue for several days before recovering.

The University of Florida announced in September that a bottlenose dolphin in Dixie County had contracted bird flu in the first known case in North America. It likely came into contact with an infected bird along Florida’s Gulf Coast, researchers say.

Here are some ways to help prevent bird flu, according to wildlife experts:

  • Clean your bird feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution. That’s one part bleach mixed with nine parts water
  • If you have to deal with a dead bird, follow how to remove it from state avian flu guidelines
  • Keep birdhouses away from domestic poultry
  • Report dead birds to the state

“We ask the public not to touch sick or dead birds unless necessary,” Jones said. “However, we strongly recommend reporting all dead bird sightings.”

The public can report sightings to the Bird Mortality Database: if you see a dead bird, report it below https://app.myfwc.com/FWRI/AvianMortality/

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