Alberta conservation groups concerned about how wild birds will cope with bird flu

Some Alberta conservation organizations are worried about how bird flu will affect their operations in the coming weeks as they head into their busiest time of year.

The Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation (AIWC), based northwest of Calgary in the hamlet of Madden, received “suspicious cases” last week, executive director Holly Lillie told CBC News.

Five Canada geese and one great horned owl were brought to the rehabilitation and rescue center with signs of the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 avian influenza, or bird flu, whose symptoms include swollen eyes, secretions nose and eyes, muscle tremors, drooping wings and poor balance.

Bird flu vaccines do not protect against all strains, and the virus has a mortality rate as high as 90%, according to the AIWC. Birds brought to them were euthanized and sent for testing.

“It’s very obvious, the symptoms that we’re seeing,” Lillie said. “Our greatest concern is risking the lives of the patients we already care for.”

The food industry is already experiencing bird flu outbreaks ⁠—an estimated 166,000 birds have been euthanized or killed by the virus in Alberta since the end of 2021.

To prevent outbreaks at the AIWC, Lillie said staff have reinforced cleaning protocols and the use of personal protective equipment. They also assess animals that come to their site outdoors or in a separate building.

“Animals do not enter our main hospital until we are as sure as possible that there is little or no risk that they have the virus,” she said.

Always evolving

Colin Weir, executive director of the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation in Coaldale, east of Lethbridge, said they have yet to see any cases of wild birds infected with bird flu, but it will remain a concern throughout the summer.

“It’s just a big question mark and nobody knows what it’s going to be until it happens,” Weir said.

For now, the situation at the AIWC is under control, but Lillie said she could put a different level of pressure on the institute as it enters its busiest time of the year, from May to September.

“We are really concerned about the impact this will have on our operations and our ability to properly care for animals during this time if this remains a concern.”

The AIWC receives several calls a day about birds in distress that may have bird flu, in addition to the usual calls about injured and orphaned wildlife. The spring migration of birds, already underway, could also increase disease transmission.

“It’s really heartbreaking to hear about these animals that people find in their gardens. [and] in the middle of the roads,” Lillie said.

She advised people with poultry or pet birds to familiarize themselves with the symptoms of bird flu and take special precautions to prevent its spread, advice of which can be found on the government’s website. Alberta.

Sick or dead birds should be reported to the Alberta Parks and Environment Office at 310-0000.

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