According to seabird expert Bill Montevecchi, the murre population in Newfoundland and Labrador appeared healthy over the winter.  (Submitted by Ian L. Jones - photo credit)

According to seabird expert Bill Montevecchi, the murre population in Newfoundland and Labrador appeared healthy over the winter. (Submitted by Ian L. Jones – photo credit)

Submitted by Ian L Jones

Submitted by Ian L Jones

A deadly strain of bird flu that ravaged seabird colonies in Newfoundland and Labrador last summer and early fall remains a cause for concern going into the New Year, an expert warns.

Bill Montevecchi, a seabird biologist at Memorial University, said the province’s colonies were “pounded” by the disease last year, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of birds of various species, many washed up on coasts and beaches in the confusion of Experts, hunters and bird lovers.

“We started last April, we had this huge murmur kill due to the ice conditions on the south coast of Labrador. That wiped out thousands of birds, we’re sure, and then it was in May that the virus started showing up on the West Coast,” Montevecchi told CBC News on Monday.

“Then it went all summer. Tens of thousands of murres, same for gannets. [It was] a tremendous impact and those will be the questions this summer when we go back to the colonies. Will we see gaps or will those gaps be filled in by non-breeding birds?

Montevecchi said the birds are resilient, but climate change, on top of bird flu, is threatening populations.

He said experts are hoping for the best this summer but are staying realistic as they closely monitor the colonies.

Patrick Butler/Radio Canada

Patrick Butler/Radio Canada

“This mortality from the spring event and mortality from the virus are unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said.

“And it’s ongoing because like COVID the birds are still expected to carry some of this virus and the question is if it will be fatal or what the consequences will be.”

Montevecchi said it’s difficult to predict how seabird populations will fare this summer.

The first cases of bird flu were traced to Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve in early June. Montevecchi said scientists were “afraid” it would wipe out the colony.

But the blow to the population didn’t happen until late July, he said, and experts still don’t have an answer as to why.

Josee Basque/Radio Canada

Josee Basque/Radio Canada

“The water temperature has increased so much that we had a heat wave in late July and we think – we can’t prove it – maybe the added stress of the hot water made it difficult for parents to get food for their young ones they are carrying.” the virus and stress just pushed her over the edge,” Montevecchi said.

“It depends on a combination of things. It seems like sometimes the animal could have the virus and survive, but if the situation is stressful it could push the bird over the edge. It’s that really complex combination of things that will determine how it plays out.”

But the winter showed some positive signs for the Murren population.

Montevecchi said there was a reduction in the annual winter hunt in terms of the number of people actively attending the event.

He said many hunters weren’t out of concern the virus was still lingering, but those who hunted reported healthy birds.

“Basic reports that came back from hunters were that there were many birds and the birds were all in good condition and also Environment Canada have tested these birds for the virus to my knowledge and have yet to pick up any positive signs of the virus.” said Montevecchi.

“So it looks like the hunt has been reduced which would give the grumbles some breathing space and the hunters who hunted seemed to be doing well getting good birds and the birds as best we can tell seemed to be healthy. What happens this summer as the weather warms up remains to be seen.”

Listen to the full interview with CBC Radio Newfoundland Morning:

Meanwhile, the two resident swans at Bowring Park in St. John’s have died along with seven ducks, the city confirmed in a statement on Friday, adding that the cause of death was bird flu.

“The young swan seemed ill and died quickly; a week later the older swan was found dead in the duck pond [in] Bowring Park,” the statement said. “The older swan was sent away for testing along with seven ducks found dead in the pond and appears to have died of bird flu.”

The city is asking the public not to feed the birds in Bowring Park, noting that there are several signs on site advising against the act, but people still do it.

“We are asking individuals to please stop feeding birds. As long as the practice continues, we fear we will see more deaths,” the city’s statement said.

“We have discussed these deaths with those responsible for tracking, testing and monitoring avian influenza. They have indicated that bird flu is increasing in the region, so mortality is to be expected.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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