aWalking along the shoreline of Lake Highlands on a wonderful May evening, ecologist and wildlife photographer Peter Stronach could hardly believe what he was seeing. The beach was littered with dead and dying birds: male eiders, several species of gulls, gulls, puffins and no less than 26 pink-footed geese, which are now supposed to be on their way back to their breeding grounds in Iceland.
In all, Stronach recorded 72 individual birds of 17 species in Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve on the east coast of Scotland that day, plus many more on the following days.
But these birds were not killed by a passing predator; And they were not victims of a sudden storm at sea. These deaths were caused by a highly contagious viral – and for birds, usually fatal. H5N1 bird flu or, as it’s more commonly known, bird flu, is back with a vengeance.
What really worries Stronach is the range of species he finds. Earlier this spring, we noticed that bird flu was limited to geese. But it has since spread to wild birds, birds of prey, and other seabirds.”
In previous years, it occurred mainly in the winter; Now, he says, it affects the breeding of popular coastal species such as the eider.
Elsewhere in Scotland earlier this month, about 20 husky were found dead or dying on Fair Island, with more other breeding colonies reported in the Shetland Islands. This came on the heels of a serious outbreak of bird flu in 2021, when hundreds of asco fish died.
For any species, these deaths represent a serious setback, especially at the height of the breeding season. But for large fish and pink geese, this news is especially alarming. Scotland hosts 60% of the global breeding of the Great Skuas, and 90% of the world’s population of pink-footed geese spend the winter in the UK. For these two species, both of which are on the Amber List for Birds of Conservation Concern, bird flu could pose a serious threat to their long-term future.
Avian influenza is by no means confined to the United Kingdom. In December 2021, a disease outbreak in the Hula Valley in northern Israel killed more than 5,000 birds out of the winter’s 30,000. In what the Israeli government called “the most dangerous wildlife disaster in the nation’s history,” workers in protective suits were filmed collecting corpses. After the outbreak of the disease, farmers were instructed to slaughter hundreds of thousands of chickens.
In Canada, a deadly strain of bird flu devastated the poultry industry, killing nearly two million chickens. Now it has not only passed on to wild birds but to mammals as well. While the disease is usually restricted to waterfowl, this particular breed has attacked crows, birds, gulls, birds of prey, and even small foxes.
The United States is experiencing what appears to be the worst outbreak of bird flu ever – which farmers blame on transmission from wild birds. So far, more than 37 million chickens and turkeys have been culled, with more to come. If one bird tests positive, farmers must destroy the entire flock.
As one report noted: “In Wisconsin, lines of dump trucks took days to collect bird carcasses and pile them in unused fields. Neighbors live with the smell of rotting birds.” Even the bald eagle, America’s national bird, was affected.
Could it also affect humans? The answer, in very rare cases, is yes – usually those, such as farm workers, who have been in close and long-term contact with infected poultry. From 2003 to 2021, nearly 500 people worldwide died after contracting the virus.
Clearly, bird flu is something we should take seriously. But Stronach worries that the current monitoring and control system is designed to protect commercial poultry businesses, and isn’t really appropriate for wild bird populations. “We need urgent research to find out what other species they are in and, more importantly, the mechanisms through which they spread,” he says.
He is particularly concerned that if dead birds are not collected after an outbreak, they may be plundered by hawks, red kites, gulls and birds, causing the disease to spread faster.
Anyone who finds a dead or dying wild bird, who is suspected of having the disease, should not touch the carcass; Nor should they try to save him if he is still alive. In the UK, they must report their findings immediately to the Defra helpline – 03459 335577.