Jane Gibson is a self-proclaimed bird freak who always looks forward to seeing snow geese in spring.
But this year when the birds passed their home near Grand Coulee, about 20 km west of Regina, they noticed something was wrong.
“I’ve never seen so many dead birds,” said Gibson, who has lived in the area for nearly 15 years.
It is not an isolated problem. In Saskatchewan and across the country, snow geese have been hit hard by bird flu that has killed them.
Since early December, a highly contagious form of bird flu has decimated migratory birds in Canada, said Ega Stasiak, a wildlife health specialist for the Saskatchewan government.
“This is the first outbreak in Saskatchewan since 2017,” Stasiak said, adding that this particular strain of bird flu, H5N1, is highly aggressive. “It has caused a greater mortality rate, and we have seen a much wider range of affected species than we have with previous strains.
“Since late March, the county has received more than 300 reports of bird infection or death,” she said, adding that 100 presumptive positive cases are awaiting confirmation.
Birds usually die within a week of infection. Generally, bird flu is linked to a respiratory virus, Stasiak said, but this strain “affects multiple organ systems, including the liver, kidneys, pancreas, and nervous system, including the brain.” They have observed neurological symptoms in the birds, including tremors and jerking movements.
The majority of cases were concentrated in the south-central region of the province, where the bulk of infected birds were found in communities, such as the Grand Coulee, along the TransCanada between Regina to Moose Jaw.
“In that area the birds stop along their migratory routes and that’s where you see the very large flocks of birds.” Some sick birds have been reported as far north as Nyaboen, 360 kilometers north of Regina, Stasiak said.
Snow geese migrate annually from Texas and “pass through the southern United States and then fly all the way to the Arctic to their nesting grounds,” making the infestation rate widespread.
Most of the snow geese are now north, Stasiak said, and people might see dead birds because the snow has melted.
That’s when Gibson really started noticing the problem.
She said the migration season started like any other year. “They settled in the field and everything seemed fine. And then when they left and the snow started to melt, it became clear that there were some that didn’t work out. I’d say at least ten, if not more.”
At first I thought the deaths were due to collisions on the plane, but after some research I found out that she most likely died of bird flu.
“I was sad to see that they had bird flu,” Gibson said.
Her possessions weren’t the only ones with dead birds strewn across the fields. It was clear that the issue was widespread in society.
“You can see them off the highway,” she said. “You can see them around the Grand Coulee. And then, you know, once they leave, you can see that there were some that didn’t work out.”
Stasiak said bird flu was first detected on the east coast and is believed to have spread across the Atlantic coast to midwestern states and then north with birds in the spring. This means the infection has spread across the Prairies and west into British Columbia.
“We are seeing similar reports of deaths across the country,” she said.
Snow geese are an abundant species and “it appears that a relatively low percentage of the population has been affected,” Stasiak said.
Spread to other species
Initially, Stasiak reports that the virus was only affecting snow geese and Ross geese, but it has spread to other species.
“We also get quite a few types of reports on raptors. So hawks, eagles, great-horned owls, and scavengers, also crows and crows and magpies.” It is suspected that these birds likely feed on the carcasses of infected waterfowl and become infected.
While no mammalian scavenger case of the virus has been reported so far in Saskatchewan, Stasiak urged property owners to remove any dead birds that could be eaten by family pets.
She recommended wearing a mask and gloves and “using a plastic bag to pick up the bird, put it in a double bag and dispose of it.”
One dead bird can be dumped in household waste, Stasiak said, but if there are more, it will need to go to an approved landfill.
But as a general rule, Stasiak recommended leaving the birds where they are and letting them decompose naturally.
track sick birds
Stasiak said they rely on members of the public to report any birds that exhibit unusual behavior or appear to be ill. While they cannot help infected birds, management wants to know where they are because “this will be vital in understanding the extent and effects of the virus.”
They are also trying to find out if there are any carrier birds that are not showing any clinical symptoms.
Sick and dead birds can be viewed through the Regional Inquiry Line, the Wildlife Health Cooperative of Canada, the Wildlife Health Tracker app, or by calling the Wildlife Emergency Hotline at 1-800-567-2033.