REGIONAL— Should residents of the North Country quit feeding wild birds temporarily? That’s the hot debate on the Ely Field Naturalists email listserv and elsewhere among bird watching …
REGIONAL— Should residents of the North Country quit feeding wild birds temporarily? That’s the hot debate on the Ely Field Naturalists email listserv and elsewhere among bird watching enthusiasts.
The source of the debate is the sudden appearance of a Eurasian strain of the avian flu that is apparently spreading throughout North America. The spread of the strain is prompting major concerns among poultry producers, who have already suffered losses (either through death or culling to prevent spread) of over 20 million birds.
The avian flu has also spread to wild birds, although the extent of that infection remains unknown. Deaths have been reported among waterfowl and some raptors and the situation recently prompted the Minnesota Raptor Center to issue a statement urging the public to refrain from feeding wild birds, since feeders could be a means of spreading the disease.
While officials with the Raptor Center aren’t the only wildlife professionals who’ve made that plea, there is no unanimity on the question. In response to the public debate, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently issued a statement clarifying that the DNR is not urging the public to discontinue bird feeding. “We have not received any confirmed reports of songbirds affected by this strain of avian influenza,” reads the DNR statement. At the same time, the DNR reminds members of the public who do feed birds to take regular steps to clean their feeders to protect birds against other infections, like salmonella.
To date, the new avian flu strain is not known to have infected any significant number of the species of birds that frequent feeders, but is primarily limited to migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, and birds of prey that consume infected birds. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The conservation group Birds Canada recently advised its members that “the use of backyard feeders is still safe.” The main exception would be for people who also care for poultry, in which case the group recommends that growers bring their domestic fowl inside to protect them from interaction with wild birds, which could be carrying the virus that causes the illness.
The discussion of the issue among members of the Ely Field Naturalists has been spirited, with arguments on both sides. Advocates of discontinuing feeding argue that it’s a purely recreational activity and there’s no need to put wild birds at risk unnecessarily.
But others point out that birds, particularly migrants, often rely on feeders for at least a portion of their diet, especially in years like this one, when winter lingers well into April, keeping many of their food sources under deep snow.
Once spring-like conditions arrive in the North Country, birds should find more ready access to food sources, at which time many area residents discontinue bird feeding for the summer. As with human flu viruses, the onset of warmer weather also tends to reduce the incidence of the disease, which should lower the risk for wild birds.
There is little sign that the flu virus will be able to spread from birds to people, but officials note that people should wear proper protection if handling birds that may be affected.
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