The deadly strain of bird flu that is ravaging Canada’s poultry industry has also taken down an unusual number of wild birds and even spread to mammals, killing a pair of juvenile foxes near St. Marys in Ontario, according to reports. wildlife experts.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said that since Thursday, at least 68 poultry farms have been affected by the virus across the country, with an estimated 1.7 million birds killed. The hardest hit provinces are Alberta, followed by Ontario, each with 23 affected farms.
Wildlife experts say avian influenza usually only affects waterfowl, but this strain, called highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, has affected a wide range of wild birds, including waterfowl, corvids (like crows and blue jays), gulls and raptors. .
However, the most surprising victims to date are a pair of juvenile red foxes who recently died of bird flu near St Marys.
Arrival of the HPAI variant ‘concerning’
“These foxes had been consuming raw meat from infected animals,” said University of Guelph wildlife pathologist Brian Stevens.
Stevens performs necropsies on wildlife that die under unusual circumstances in Ontario and Nunavut for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.
“So far we’ve only seen it in kits. It’s only five to six week kits and I don’t know yet if it’s affected adults as well, so that’s something we let’s keep an eye on.”
Stevens said the HPAI strain was first detected in Ontario wildlife in mid-March and the death toll is growing. By early May, it had detected the virus 55 times in wild animals, a three- to four-fold increase in what it would typically see in its case count.
“The variant that exists now affects a lot of wild animals, which we don’t usually see. So the fact that he jumps [to foxes] and causing serious illness and death of Canada geese and several raptor species is of concern. »
That concern is part of the reason some wildlife rescue groups in Ontario — including the Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Mount Brydges — have stopped taking sick or dying birds. Brian Salt, the group’s founder, said he did not want to risk introducing the highly pathogenic virus to his farm or the operations of his neighbours.
“Like a lit fuse in a powder keg”
“We’re like a lit fuse in a powder keg,” he said of his wildlife center’s proximity to dozens of southwestern Ontario poultry farms in the Strathroy area. -Caradoc.
“This virus is devastating to the poultry industry. We could be a major threat to businesses here and we don’t want to do that.”
Salt said that although his facility has stopped taking wild birds for the year, it still has a number of resident raptors who act as teaching aids in public speaking. He said staff must now wear full PPE including masks and gloves when handling birds of prey to avoid making them sick.
“We just can’t afford to lose them,” he said of the trained birds, some of which he’s owned for more than 15 years.
Salt said his center normally takes 75 birds a year, but had to turn down all requests for help this year to mitigate risk.
“It’s devastating for a lot of people because they might have a nest of babies that need medical attention and we just have to say no. It’s painful on both sides of the phone.”
We could be a major threat to businesses here and we don’t want to do that.– Brian Salt, Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
It is expected to get more painful, according to bird experts, who predict the first wave of illness will likely peak with the peak of spring migration later this month. After that, the virus should stay low until wild birds start migrating south this fall.
The threat to humans is low, according to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, but people are advised not to handle sick or dying wildlife.
Hunters are advised to wear disposable gloves and follow proper handling guidelines while dealing with game birds or other wildlife.
In terms of how long this bird flu outbreak will last, experts aren’t sure. But given that the same strain hit Europe a year ago and still seems to be affecting commercial and wild birds, the virus may stay with us for some time.