Avian flu detected in Kansas' wild birds

·7 min read

Mar. 14—It's been awhile, but the "bird flu" is back in Kansas.

Since March 4, the Kansas Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has been warning of a confirmed presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in wild waterfowl in central Kansas. While nationwide in scope, the Kansas warning is especially aimed at hunters and poultry production operations in the state due to current migrations in the Cheyenne Bottoms central flyway.

"Confirmed HPAI in wild birds in central Kansas is an indication that Kansas birds are at risk of exposure from the wild migratory bird population, said Justin Smith, Animal Health Commissioner. "We've encouraged Kansas poultry owners to be aware of this possibility, but now the reality is all poultry owners need to be vigilant in taking steps to protect their flocks from avian influenza.

"If you haven't implemented biosecurity practices yet, the time to do it is now."

On Wednesday, the KDA updated its message, noting that biosecurity is a high priority.

Officials at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, Cheyenne Bottoms, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism and the Brit Spaugh Zoo in Great Bend have begun the implementation of biosecurity protocols to protect their respective animal populations.

"We need all poultry owners to be part of the effort to prevent of disease in Kansas," Commissioner Smith said Wednesday. "Our best defense is to follow strict biosecurity practices and vigilantly monitor birds for any signs of illness."

Officials are currently investigating cases in snow geese and Ross's Goose taken by hunter harvest, although other wild birds are highly susceptible. Cases of domestic birds such as chickens, turkeys and other birds have also been identified in neighboring states, in backyard flocks as well as commercial operations. At this time, no domestic cases have been detected in Kansas.

This is the first confirmed occurrence of HPAI in Kansas since 2015.

Safety first

For poultry, biosecurity practices include:

—Prevent all contact with wild birds, especially wild waterfowl.

—Restrict unauthorized people and vehicles.

—Cover and enclose outdoor feeding areas and cover stored feed.

—Clean and disinfect any vehicle tires or equipment that has been on other farms or other locations where there is poultry or wild birds.

—Wear clean clothing, boots and shoes when in contact with your flock.

—Isolate new birds.

Hunter safety

Wildfowl hunters have also been advised to follow biosecurity procedures to prevent accidental exposure and transmission. Officials at Cheyenne Bottoms have issued the following safety protocols for hunters and birding enthusiasts:

—Clean harvested birds in the field; do hot take them home to clean.

—No salvaging of dead birds.

—No transport of ill birds to rehab centers.

—Wear disposable gloves when handling dead birds.

—Change into clean clothes after being in the field, clean and disinfect shoes.

Symptoms of HPAI include: coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge and other signs of respiratory distress; lack of energy and appetite; decreased water consumption; decreased egg production and/or soft-shelled, misshapen eggs; incoordination; and diarrhea. Avian influenza can also cause sudden death in birds, even if they are asymptomatic.

At the first sign of symptoms, contact a veterinarian. Producers may also contact KDA's Division of Animal Health at 785-564-6601 or toll-free at 833-765-2006.

Evidence of avian flu in birds has been confirmed to date in 20 states, most recently in Kansas, involving three major migratory flyways.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no human cases of HPAI have been detected in the U.S. Avian influenza does not present a food safety risk; poultry and eggs are safe to eat when handled and cooked properly.

Current HPAI wave has European origin

MANHATTAN — The wave of highly pathogenic avian influenza currently passing through the country's eastern and central migratory flyways has a European origin, notes a Kansas State University wildlife disease expert.

Shane Hesting, wildlife disease coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism at KSU, said Friday that Kansas is just the wavefront of the EAH5 strain of the influenza virus attacking bird populations in the U.S.

"We have detected EAH5," Hesting said Friday afternoon. "We haven't had confirmation of H5N1 yet. It probably is, which is the current one circulating in the U.S. right now."

The disease has been detected in three of the country's four major flyways beginning on the east coast and moving westward. "It wasn't in the central flyway (containing Kansas) until late last week," Hesting said. "As the birds move, they bring it with them."

Hesting said it was important to note that not all infected birds are dying of the disease. The birds collected from Cheyenne Bottoms in Barton County did not exhibit any symptoms in their positive test for H5, he said.

"That's an example of a carrier not sick with it yet. Most of them are carrying it without symptoms, so it will have a serious impact on domestic poultry," he said. "Any domestic bird is highly at risk of complete eradication from this, if it gets in the pens. Backyard producers should keep their birds penned up as much as they can right now, because in the environment, the virus thrives in the water, ponds and troughs and the like."

Hunters should utilize appropriate PPE and take extra precautions, he said.

Hesting said that scientifically, the current strain is the European lineage of H5NI. "It killed birds in Europe, but doesn't affect people that much," he said.

"The lineage we have here is an offshoot of that," he said. "The carriers (birds) came here through various corridors. This strain came through Newfoundland in December, bringing it to the Atlantic seaboard and it spread into the Mississippi flyway. Scientists were finding evidence in asymptomatic birds in January and the first poultry farm got infected in Indiana, killing 29,000 turkeys that were meat birds."

There, the entire working flock had to be euthanized to prevent spread, because workers could spread it to other farms from their clothing, he said.

Avian flu is a virus that originates primarily with wild bird populations, but can be contracted by humans through contact, Hesting noted. Symptoms usually manifest from two to eight days and seems like the common flu. Cough, fever, sore throat, muscle aches, headache and shortness of breath may occur.

Environmentally, the virus can thrive in cold water up to two weeks, but weakens in warmer temperatures, he said.

"Once we get into the summer months with a constant warm temperature, we should basically be out of danger," Hesting said.

The Kansas confirmation originated in the Norton area. Hesting said that approximately 215 ill snow geese were collected with a positive result for EAH5 showing in two tested geese. Another sample population of 2,200 was collected in Glen Elder, but results are not in yet. An ill bald eagle was also collected at Glen Elder.

Bottoms birds at risk

Even with protocols in place, bird populations at risk include sandhill cranes and whoopers, which can be observed on their spring migration through the area as early as February. The KWEC has reported cranes flying overhead at the Bottoms this week.

Curtis Wolf, site manager at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, notes that the risk to human bird watchers is relatively low, but incoming cranes in spring migration would be at risk from sharing the water with infected birds.

"We've had a lot of sandhill cranes already coming through," Wolf said Friday. "They've been coming through probably for about the last month. It's the time for whooping cranes to come through as well."

Wolf reported three whooping cranes sighted at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday. "Those were the first ones in this area," he said. "I did get a report of four sighted up in Nebraska.

With waterfowl as the vector for the virus, Wolf said that the cranes would be in the same habitat. Bird-watchers, meanwhile, should be aware of the situation and not attempt to recover a sick bird. They should report dead birds sighted to the proper authorities.

Cholera also a possibility

Some of the birds in the Norton sample could have died of avian cholera, Hesting said.

Avian cholera is a contagious disease caused by the bacterium Pasteurella multocida, which commonly affects geese, coots, gulls and crows. Infection in birds results in quick death within 6-12 hours, with symptoms of convulsions and confused behavior. The Norton snow geese could possibly have carried the flu and cholera as a co-infection simultaneously, Hesting said.

Bird deaths resulting from avian cholera were documented in 2015 at Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira. About 30 dead geese were picked up from Cheyenne Bottoms in December of that year.