December 09, 2022
Wildfowl began reporting on the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) back in March 2022, and has been providing readers with updates since then, including changing restrictions for hunters heading up into Canada this season.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), HPAI first appeared along the East Coast and has spread across North America affecting wild waterfowl populations, as well as other birds and mammals, and the domestic poultry industry. Now, with winter migrations in full motion, the bird flu continues to fly wild. As of December 6, 2022, APHIS is reporting a total of 4,362 positive cases that have been detected in the United States from coast to coast. The agency anticipates additional avian influenza detections will continue into the spring.
Seeing Is Believing
This week I hunted six days and the escalation of avian influenza that I witnessed left no doubt to the seriousness of this virus. I saw it while hunting and when visiting a nearby wildlife refuge.
When hunting on November 23, 2022, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, south of Corvallis, a lone honker responded to my calls. It circled the decoys three times and eventually landed. I didn’t shoot it because it just didn’t look right. Its wingbeat was faster paced than normal with abbreviated motion. Then I got a good look at its neck before it landed and it was retracted and uncomfortably bent, just like I’d seen with dying birds on the ground.
The goose landed in the water then went to preening. But it was an unusual action with erratic movements. The goose slowly moved to land where it stumbled and tried preening but lost its balance. This happened repeatedly. Ducks came and went, I shot a few, but the goose didn’t move. Finally, I ran it off. I got inside 10 yards before it finally flew away. It was slow to take to the air, stayed low, and landed 300 yards away in a field, where I’m sure it soon died.
After the hunt I went to Finley National Wildlife Refuge, 20 minutes from my hunting spot. This refuge is home to the world’s highest population of wintering dusky Canada geese. It’s also the hub of cacklers that winter in the valley to graze on grass. Tundra swans and thousands of puddle ducks also winter here. Other subspecies of Canada geese live here, too. During my three hours at the refuge, I counted 11 dead or dying geese and saw nearly twice that number of geese that had been feasted on by raptors.
Dead On Arrival
I ran into Edward Paush, the refuge manager. He’d just filled up the second large trash bag of the morning with dead geese; mostly cacklers, with a tundra swan and a couple dusky geese. It was his ninth day of collecting birds that had died from avian influenza, and he’d just gone over the 100 mark. And those were just the birds that could be reached from the road. Who knows how many remain in the thick marsh and on the water?
In one spot I watched three cacklers on the water, along with two dusky Canadas. Two cacks swam in tight circles for over an hour with heads craned tight to their backs and they wobbled from side-to-side. The other cackler stood in one spot, bobbed its head, and swiveled its neck from one side to the other. One dusky swam in a tiny, erratic circle while the other seemed more agitated until it violently launched into flight like a puddle duck. Rapidly beating its wings, the goose flew straight up about 50 yards, then folded like it had been shot and fell stone dead to the ground. I saw three geese die while I was there. This strain of bird flu is hitting waterfowl very hard. Think Coronavirus but for birds.
Learn to See the Signs
Uncoordinated movement, loss of flight control, cloudy eyes, and head shaking and bobbing are some of the key signs you’ll see from ducks and geese that have contracted avian influenza. “Within 72 hours of the signs surfacing, most birds will die,” notes Julia Burco, a field wildlife veterinarian with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
It’s also worth noting a steady increase of raptor deaths in areas where infected waterfowl are being scavenged upon. In other states, skunks, red foxes, and coyotes have contracted the avian flu from eating dead waterfowl.
Despite the supposed low risk of domestic dogs contracting the virus, some waterfowl hunters in the region have quit hunting with their dogs until more is known about how the virus is spread across species. Others are just being more careful, not letting their dogs roam ponds where they might happen upon a sick goose or letting them lick retrieved birds.
Brandon Reishus, migratory game bird coordinator for OFWD, advises hunters to not give the raw livers and hearts of ducks and geese to your dog. “Hunters who will be handling larger numbers of birds will want to wear rubber gloves when carrying (and cleaning) them,” he added.
Authorities advise handling dead birds with rubber gloves and a face mask, and immediately washing their clothes once home. Keep a watchful eye and be sure to cook all waterfowl meat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before eating.
With wet, cold conditions and waterfowl migrations peaking in the coming weeks, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen with this strain of deadly avian influenza. It appears hunting seasons will remain open in this part of the country, for now, but as quickly as bird deaths are escalating, there are no certainties.
Stay tuned to Wildfowl for more bird flu updates throughout the 2022-2023 hunting season!