General News Health & Medicine Local News Science & Nature

Bird flu concerns force new restrictions at wildlife center

Ducklings are often patients at the Wildlife Center of the North Coast in the spring, but as a deadly avian influenza continues to spread, the center has had to limit what kind of birds it brings in. — Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Center of the North Coast

CLATSOP COUNTY — Normally, the Wildlife Center of the North Coast would be drowning in ducklings right now.

The Olney-based wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center sees several hundred a year and late spring is always an especially busy time.

But avian influenza is on the move across the nation. Millions of birds have died from the disease or been culled to curb its spread. The disease was detected in Oregon last month for the first time since 2015. With cases now reported in Oregon and Washington, wildlife centers across the region are taking precautions.

To protect current patients as well as ambassador birds used in educational outreach, the Wildlife Center of the North Coast has had to make some temporary changes to what kinds of animals — specifically, what kind of birds — it accepts.

Under new state restrictions meant to stem the spread of the bird flu in Oregon, the wildlife center’s clinic cannot accept any sick or injured waterfowl.

That means no ducklings, for now.

“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, we can’t take it in,” said Josh Saranpaa, executive director of the wildlife center.

The center can still take songbirds, but following further guidance from the state, the center opted to restrict raptors and scavengers that consume waterfowl as well as species of shorebirds and seabirds that are particularly susceptible to the disease.

That means, in most cases, no gulls, no barn owls, no eagles — exactly the kinds of birds the coastal rescue center sees often.

The risk to people is low, but for birds, the avian influenza is often fatal and there is no vaccine or treatment, said Katie Haman, a state wildlife veterinarian.

Bringing an infected bird into a clinic or a home could spread the disease to new areas and increase its reach, Haman said.

The Washington State Department of Health and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife this week cautioned people against touching sick or dead wild birds.

The virus is extremely contagious among some domesticated bird species like chickens, pheasants and turkeys and is often spread through interactions with wild birds.

Some experts expect cases to drop off in the summer as migrating wild birds move on, though there is a chance cases could spike again in the fall with cooler temperatures.

But it isn’t even clear what the situation is right now since few wild birds are being tested. Nor do experts know which bird species have been most affected. After all, noted Cheryl Strong, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is easier to find a large sick bird like a bald eagle than a very small sick bird like a snowy plover.

For now, Strong and others have received guidance to avoid handling birds out in the field. The Oregon Biodiversity Information Center out of Portland State University is avoiding capturing and banding adult birds during the outbreak.

At the wildlife center, Saranpaa is already thinking about the weeks ahead. Pelicans usually start showing up at the center’s clinic in June and late July. There are baby seabirds that also make an appearance in the early summer.

Saranpaa says he wants to find ways to continue to serve the community and help wildlife despite the challenges posed by the bird flu. He hopes to be able to do field assessments as people encounter birds in need of help.

With these assessments, volunteers could perform euthanasias on site if a bird is exhibiting symptoms of avian influenza without the risk of bringing the disease back to the wildlife clinic. If a bird isn’t exhibiting symptoms, there’s the possibility they could be brought back to the clinic and put into a five day quarantine.

The wildlife center still needs to run this idea past the state, but the center has not had a positive case yet and Saranpaa is confident going forward.

Still, he cautions, all of the protocols could change again, and quickly.

For now, clinic staff are telling people who encounter sick or injured waterfowl like ducks or geese to call the nearest state fish and wildlife office. For other types of birds, people should call the wildlife center’s clinic first before trying to capture the bird and bring it in.