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N.S. government biologist recommends removing bird feeders to stop avian flu spread

Call follows discovery of H5N1 strain of avian flu in province.


March 18, 2022
By The Canadian Press

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A government biologist says bird enthusiasts in Nova Scotia should forgo their backyard feeders this year to prevent the spread of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza.

Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources is recommending residents take down bird feeders following the discovery of the H5N1 strain of avian flu in the province. Nova Scotia’s first confirmed case was in a wild goose in January, and there were two reports of infections in commercial poultry flocks in February.

Elizabeth Walsh, a regional biologist for the department, said in an interview Wednesday that feeders act as a space for different species to congregate, exposing birds that are usually low-risk to others that might carry the virus.

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“When we do have backyard feeders up, we have no control over what species come to our feeders, so there’s always a chance that we could have species that we know have already tested positive,” she said. “We want to make sure … we’re not unintentionally providing an environment that could spread the virus further.”

The department also recommends that residents not handle wild birds, as the virus can be spread through contact with the bird’s bodily fluid and feces to humans.

The virus has been confirmed in some species that tend to frequent bird feeders, Walsh added. Left unrestricted, the spread of H5N1 can cause mass disease and death among both wild and domestic birds. It can spread from infected birds to people, but such infections are rare and haven’t led to sustained outbreaks among humans.

Brenda Boates, the wildlife operations manager at the Cobequid Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, about 80 kilometres north of Halifax, said the strain of avian flu circulating can be carried asymptomatically by waterfowl, including ducks and geese. It can then spread at bird feeders when corvids such as crows and blue jays use them after consuming infected bird bodies, exposing species that are otherwise at low risk of catching the virus.

There’s also a concern of the risk to commercial poultry flocks, Boates added. “Domestic birds have no resistance to it at all,” she said. “It’s also a very high risk to our economy, to the poultry industry.”

Last month, Lori Ansems, vice-president of Turkey Farmers of Nova Scotia, said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency had put in place safety measures to prevent spread of the virus, including a 10-kilometre control zone around a farm where 12,000 turkeys had to be euthanized because of the flu.

Data from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative shows that as of March 8, the H5N1 flu strain had been confirmed in dead birds in Canada only in the Atlantic region — three cases in Nova Scotia, one in Prince Edward Island and 10 in Newfoundland and Labrador. Jones said the number of cases is growing. In live birds, 29 cases had been detected in Nova Scotia and two had been detected in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Megan Jones, an assistant professor with the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island, said in an interview the Island has had at least one case of the virus in a crow.

Jones, who is also the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative’s Atlantic regional director, said “quite a few different species have been confirmed positive” since the first cases were detected in the region in Newfoundland and Labrador late last year. She said ducks, gulls, crows, blue jays and raptors, including a red-tailed hawk in Nova Scotia and a bald eagle in Prince Edward Island, were among the infected birds.

Last month, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced that the discovery of avian influenza in a commercial poultry flock in Nova Scotia had resulted in international trade restrictions on some Canadian poultry products.

South Korea and the Philippines have imposed restrictions on poultry products from all of Canada, including live poultry, poultry meat and edible eggs. The United States, European Union, Taiwan, Mexico, Japan and Hong Kong have imposed restrictions on some products from Nova Scotia, or from the specific area of the province affected by the bird flu outbreak.