Seeing dead, or unusually acting birds? Avian influenza hitting South Dakota hard

Nov. 29—The first report this fall came seven days before Thanksgiving.

Dead birds.

"Then it blew up kind of quickly," said Rocco Murano, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks waterfowl biologist.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza has dramatically hit South Dakota in the past week. There are reports all over of mass bird die-offs, mostly impacting young snow geese. Murano suspects as the fall migration has continued and temperatures have dropped, waterfowl have bunched up where there is open water as ponds have iced over.

That has caused a significant transmission of the virus, he said. And, in turn, that's caused the death of a large number of birds moving through South Dakota.

What does a bird with highly pathogenic avian influenza look like? For the anglers who trekked to the Missouri River at Chamberlain over the weekend in search of one final open-water fishing trip of the year, birds that otherwise wouldn't stay near humans were swimming near boats.

"When they sit down and try to get back up, there are a few that just can't get back up," Murano said Tuesday.

Murano explained that "bird flu" was seen at a high rate during the spring migration when waterfowl was flying north toward breeding grounds. Those adult birds, he said, were challenged with the virus and now became immune to it. The first confirmed South Dakota report this year came in March in Charles Mix County, according to the United States Department.

But the hatch-year birds, or juveniles, got bunched up with the adults during the fall and have been dying at a high rate in the past week to 10 days.

BBC News on Monday

said the world is going through its worst-ever outbreak of bird flu. The report said this year's strain is impacting wild birds on a stronger level than ever. Typically, outbreaks have strained domestic birds such as chickens that are raised for human consumption.

"Is this one worse than we expected? This is a different animal," Murano said.

NPR reported Sunday

that Nebraska has had to cull 6.8 million birds this year due to outbreaks. That's second-worst in the nation behind only Iowa, where 15.5 million birds have been culled. South Dakota has 2.15 million birds affected by the outbreak,

according to USDA info.

In addition to waterfowl and domestic birds, bald eagles, hawks and owls are also impacted.

"They're going to be susceptible because they're picking off the sick birds," Murano said.

Nothing can really be done to stop the spread as Murano said it "has to run its course." State and federal officials are taking samples of birds and sending them to the National Wildlife Health center. They're documenting the number of dead birds and tracking how large the mortality event this year across the United States.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says bird moralities should be reported to state wildlife management agencies like

GF&P to be investigated.

Another recommendation is not to handle sick or dead wildlife unless it's necessary. For those people who are hunting waterfowl, Murano said to wear impermeable gloves when handling the bird and that hand washing afterward is a good idea. He also said not to send dogs on sick birds.

"There hasn't been any documentation of dogs getting sick, but I wouldn't do it," he said. "Take common sense precautions. The risk of human transmission is pretty low, but it's not zero."