Experts suggest Canadians put away their bird feeders amid rise in avian flu

As more and more birds fall ill with avian flu, poultry farmers and wildlife facilities in Canada are on edge, with officials placing region-specific bans on the transport of live birds and poultry products and experts advising Canadians to remove bird feeders to combat the spread.

Avian flu is an infectious virus spread primarily among birds, and can range from “lowly pathogenic” to “highly pathogenic.” The severe form attacks multiple internal organs within the infected bird, causing death in nine out of ten cases.

Since 2021, Canada has been battling outbreaks of avian flu. As of last week, more than 1.37 million birds have been impacted across the country since 2021.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), they are “currently responding to cases of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in farmed birds across Canada.”

Over the last few weeks, an increase in reported cases among both farmed and wild birds has caused a new swell of concern.

In late April, OWL Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society in Metro Vancouver, B.C., issued a statement on Facebook explaining that they were dealing with an avian flu outbreak and that it had already impacted or killed several of the wild birds they care for.

“A few rehab centres have sadly had to close to new intakes, we are lucky at OWL to have the space and equipment necessary to have multiple full quarantine facilities available for patients and have updated our quarantine procedures to adapt to this virus,” the facility wrote in the April 28 post. “Sadly HPAI in raptors is fatal in 90-100 per cent of cases and we have already lost nesting adult Bald Eagles, and an adult Coopers Hawk.”

General manager Rob Hope told CTV News Vancouver on Wednesday that they had seen about four positive cases come in, and have six that are considered potential cases. Their first case was in March.

“We’re getting them from mostly the local area here, Delta, Vancouver. We did have one positive from Bowen Island,” he said. “Unfortunately, the death rate is quite high, and it’s been within 24 hours.”

Birds who are sick with avian flu may show the disease through odd behaviour, seizures or even falling out of trees, the facility added in their Facebook post.

They are now urging residents to remove bird feeders to prevent further spread of the disease.

“To prevent the spread of HPAI please consider temporarily removing bird feeders, keep your chickens or pet fowl undercover and not in fields where wild waterfowl may gather,” the post stated.

It’s a sentiment that is being echoed by other experts. The B.C. SPCA issued a notice on Thursday warning that wild birds play a “key role” in spreading the virus, and that backyard bird feeders should be put away and bird baths emptied.

"Bird feeders facilitate the spread of the disease by encouraging unnatural congregations of birds and attracting other wildlife including predators and rodents," the warning from the SPCA said.

"The presence of bird feeders and baths can also increase the risk of transmitting the virus between nearby animals like backyard chickens or turkeys.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada still states on their website that bird feeders are safe, but adds that they should be “removed from areas that are open to poultry and other domestic animals”. They also added that you should not feed wild birds by hand, as this could encourage them to congregate in one region, increasing the probability of transmission.

“Backyard bird feeders and baths should be cleaned regularly using a weak solution of domestic bleach (10 per cent sodium hypochlorite),” they stated. “Ensure they are well rinsed and dried before re-use.”

The public is also encouraged to help by reporting any sick or dead birds to authorities, as well as birds that appear to be acting strangely.

Recently, many zoos have shut down their aviaries to protect their birds, with the Toronto Zoo and the Edmonton Valley Zoo moving birds off of exhibit in March and April respectively.

According to an online CFIA tool that shows the status of ongoing investigations into reported avian influenza by province, HPAI has been detected in five poultry and non-poultry flocks in B.C. since early April, including one in Kelowna and one in Richmond as recently as Tuesday.

Since the start of April, HPAI has been detected in 21 poultry flocks in Ontario, 25 poultry and non-poultry flocks in Alberta, and seven poultry and non-poultry flocks in Quebec and Saskatchewan each.

Currently, there are 72 flocks across the country that have had HPAI detected in them since December 2021.

The CFIA tool does not specify how many birds in each flock had been detected as having HPAI.

In March, CFIA announced that they were placing restrictions on the importation and transport of live birds, bird products and by-products from specific U.S. states that are also seeing an increase in avian flu.

Initially, the list only contained seven states. But the list was updated as recently as Thursday to add more and now contains 18 states that the restrictions apply to.

Canadians who eat poultry products do not need to be concerned about a food safety risk, the agency stressed. While avian flu can pass to humans in rare cases, you cannot contract avian flu by eating cooked poultry or eggs.

Throughout the outbreaks, numerous countries have also banned the transport of poultry products or live birds from Canada, with a number of temporary bans implemented in February due to a HPAI outbreak in Nova Scotia.