Often in UK winters there are outbreaks of avian flu amongst wild birds. Since 2021, there have been some particularly severe outbreaks, with many thousands of birds succumbing to the illness and many wildlife rescue centres having to take unprecedented action to protect birds in their care and their future operations.
What causes avian flu? Where does it come from? #
Avian Flu is caused by an avian influenza Type A virus, strains of which are believed to have been circulating since the 1800s. Avian flu is not new or related to the COVID pandemic in people. The strain circulating currently is termed ‘highly pathogenic’ which means it has a very high mortality rate in birds.
It is very likely that intensive farming of birds such as chickens, ducks and geese has provided conditions which have allowed the virus to mutate and be spread widely.
What are the symptoms of avian flu? #
In a wild bird affected by avian flu you may see some of the following signs
- swollen head
- discharge from the eyes
- lethargy or unresponsiveness
- lack of coordination including turning in circles
- loss of appetite
- twisted neck
- breathing difficulties, sneezing, or gurgling
What birds are affected? #
The wild species primarily affected are ducks, geese, swans, gulls, seabirds, and birds of prey (as they feed on deceased affected birds). Avian flu can affect other bird species, but this is not particularly common. Pheasants do appear to be featuring in reported figures in increasing numbers.
Are humans and other mammals at risk? #
Although avian flu is primarily a disease of birds, there have been cases of previous strains infecting mammals including humans. In people, those most at risk are those who work with affected birds e.g., poultry farmers. The mammals most likely to be affected are those who feed on birds who have died from the virus. The virus isn’t airborne but is spread through bodily secretions such as blood, saliva, and faeces. This means you won’t catch it just from having birds flying around in your area, but you should avoid touching any infected birds and practice good hygiene when you’ve been somewhere with potentially affected birds e.g. the beach or a park with resident waterfowl.
Why won’t wildlife rescues help birds with avian flu? #
The survival rate of avian flu is incredibly low – there is no treatment, and the birds generally suffer prolonged and very unpleasant deaths. Even without considering the risks and legal issues, attempting to ‘treat’ a bird affected by avian flu is unlikely to be justifiable on welfare grounds.
However, due the high risk of spread and impact on farming and wildlife, there are severe implications for any premises found to house a bird infected with avian flu. All birds on site, regardless of individual test outcomes, will be culled, an extensive and expensive process of disinfection must be followed, including the burning of any wooden structures, and premises are ‘shut down’ for 12 months.
Why are some wildlife rescues not taking in some/all species of bird? #
Wildlife rescue centres may be unable to help some or all species of wild bird during periods when avian flu is especially rife. Please understand this is never a decision taken lightly and that this hurts nobody more than the rescuers themselves. However, if they bring just one bird infected with avian flu onto their site, they risk every single bird on that site being culled and the site being shut down for a year. This is not hyperbole or theoretical, it has already happened to several rescues in 2021-2.
The approach taken will vary – some rescues will continue as normal, some may restrict admission of certain species, some may ask for videos of potential admissions to check them for symptoms, and others may stop taking any birds at all. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach, this will be decided by factors such as the rescue’s facilities, their location (such as whether there are cases or restrictions nearby), and what resident birds they have, for example. Whilst it is, of course, distressing to have found a sick or injured bird and not be able to find help for it, please understand that the rescues are doing their best to protect the animals already in their care and their future operations. Abuse of wildlife rescue volunteers is never acceptable.
What can I do to help a bird with avian flu? #
Sadly, very little. The survival rate is incredibly low, and no organisations can offer to try and care for an affected bird as this would lead to their facilities being shut down for a year. The best that can be done is to relieve their suffering. Some vets MAY be willing to euthanase affected birds but they, of course, must put their client’s animals first and will not risk the health and safety of pet birds who may come to them for care. Some RSPCA officers have been equipped with suitable PPE and products needed to euthanase affected birds, so it is worth calling them on 0300 123 4999.
You should call DEFRA on 03459 33 55 77 if you find:
- one or more dead birds of prey
- 3 or more dead gulls or wild waterfowl (swans, geese and ducks)
- 5 or more dead birds of any species