Jen Gibson is a self-proclaimed birdwatcher who always looks forward to seeing snow geese in the spring.
But this year, when the birds passed by her property near Grand Coulee, about 20km west of Regina, she noticed something was wrong.
“I’ve never seen so many dead birds,” said Gibson, who has lived in the area for nearly 15 years.
It is not an isolated problem. In Saskatchewan and across the country, snow geese have been hit hard by an avian flu that is killing them.
Since early December, a highly contagious form of bird flu has been ravaging migratory birds in Canada, said Iga Stasiak, wildlife health specialist with the Government of Saskatchewan.
“This is the first outbreak in Saskatchewan since 2017,” Stasiak said, adding that this particular strain of bird flu, H5N1, was very aggressive. “It caused higher mortality, and we saw a much wider range of species affected than we did with previous strains.
“Since late March, the province has received over 300 reports of sick or dead birds,” she said, adding that there are 100 presumptive positive cases awaiting confirmation.
Birds usually die within a week of infection. Bird flu is usually associated with a respiratory virus, but this strain “affects multiple organ systems, including the liver, kidneys, pancreas, and nervous system, including the brain,” Stasiak said. They noted neurological symptoms in the birds, including tremors and jerky movements.
The majority of cases have been concentrated in the south-central area of the province, with the bulk of infected birds found in communities, such as Grand Coulee, along the Trans-Canada Highway between Regina and Moose Jaw.
“In this area the birds stop over along their migration routes and that’s where you see the very large flocks of birds.” Some sick birds have been reported as far north as Niapwin, 360 km north of Regina, Stasiak said.
Snow geese migrate annually from Texas and “pass through the southern United States and then fly all the way to the Arctic to their nesting grounds”, making the infection rate widespread.
Stasiak said most of the snow geese have moved north now and people are likely seeing dead birds because the snow has melted.
That’s when Gibson really started noticing the problem.
She said the migration season started like any other year. “They settled in the field and everything seemed to be fine. And then when they left and the snow started to melt, it became clear that there were some who hadn’t survived. I would say at least a dozen, if not more.”
At first she thought the deaths were due to mid-air collisions, but after some research she discovered they most likely died of bird flu.
“I was heartbroken to see them so affected by bird flu,” Gibson said.
His property was not the only one with dead birds dotting the fields. It was clear that the problem was widespread in the community.
“You could see them coming off the freeway,” she said. “You could see them around Grand Coulée. And then, you know, once they left, you could see there were some who didn’t survive.”
Stasiak said bird flu was first detected on the East Coast and is thought to have spread across the Atlantic coast into the Midwestern states, then north with birds during spring migration. This resulted in widespread infection across the Prairies and western British Columbia.
“We see similar reports of mortality across the country,” she said.
Snow geese are an abundant species and “it still appears to be a relatively small proportion of the population that has been affected,” Stasiak said.
Spread to other species
Initially, Stasiak’s reports showed that the virus only affected snow geese and Ross’s geese, but it spread to other species.
“We also get quite a few reports of raptor species. So hawks, eagles, horned owls, as well as scavenger birds, so ravens, ravens and magpies.” She suspects these birds are likely feeding on infected waterfowl carcasses and becoming infected.
Although no cases of scavenging mammals infected with the virus have yet been reported in Saskatchewan, Stasiak urged landowners to remove any dead birds that could be eaten by pets.
She recommended wearing a mask and gloves and “using a plastic bag to pick up the bird, line it up, and dispose of it.”
A dead bird can go in household trash, but if there are more, they should be taken to an approved landfill, Stasiak said.
But as a general rule, Stasiak recommended leaving the birds where they were and letting them decompose naturally.
Follow-up of sick birds
Stasiak said they rely on members of the public to report any birds showing unusual behavior or appearing to be sick. Although they cannot help infected birds, the department wants to know their whereabouts as “this will be essential to understanding the extent of the virus and its impacts”.
They are also trying to find out “if there are any birds that are carriers or do not show any clinical symptoms”.
Sightings of sick and dead birds can be made through the provincial tip line, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperativea Wildlife Health Tracker app or by calling the Wildlife Emergency Hotline at 1-800-567-2033.