Avian Influenza Updates
A strain of avian influenza (also known as bird flu, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or H5N1) has been affecting poultry, raptors, and waterfowl across the country in 2022. It does not appear to significantly impact or spread through songbirds, and we do not recommend taking down feeders at this time.
San Rafael’s WildCare, cited in a recent Marin IJ article, has been recommending that the public take down bird feeders. This reflects their standing position that people should never feed any wildlife, including backyard songbirds, regardless of any avian influenza outbreak. This is very much a minority viewpoint not held by most mainstream avian science and conservation organizations, such as the Audubon Society or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. When we asked them for the basis for their position, WildCare cited the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, which recommended taking down feeders earlier in spring when the disease was highly prevalent in their area. Even the Raptor Center, however, has since revised their advice and has not recommended taking down feeders since May.
The disease is not currently widespread in our area. There has been a total of 1 case from Marin (a Canada goose) and 8 from Sonoma (Canada geese and turkey vultures, not since August as of 12/9/22). A total of one songbird has tested positive in California, an American Crow in Santa Clara County. While larger corvids such as crows and ravens sometimes contract severe cases, likely from scavenging on infected waterfowl, even that is rare, with fewer than 50 confirmed cases nationwide. Small corvids that are most common at feeders are not at high risk; there have been zero jay cases across the country. (See the USDA database for the most up-to-date information.)
Most sources conclude that songbirds and feeders are not significant factors in spreading the disease:
- "There is currently very low risk of an outbreak among wild songbirds, and no official recommendation to take down feeders unless you also keep domestic poultry." Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- “Removing backyard feeders is not somethings USDA specifically recommends to prevent avian influenza unless you also take care of poultry.” United States Department of Agriculture
- “The use of bird feeders is still safe but they should be removed from areas that are open to poultry and other domestic animals.” Government of Canada
- “There is no evidence that birdfeeders, or the birds that frequent them, contribute to the spread of HPAI.” Institute for Infectious and Zoonotic Diseases, University of Pennsylvania
- “…although passerines and terrestrial wild birds may have a limited role in the epidemiology of [avian influenza viruses] when associated with infected domestic poultry, there is no evidence supporting their involvement as natural reservoirs for IAV.” Journal of Wildlife Diseases
- "Passerines do not seem susceptible to HPAI and are not thought to play a significant role in spreading this virus. We are not recommending removal of bird feeders at this point." Cornell Wildlife Health Lab
If you do keep backyard poultry, extra precautions may be warranted:
- Make their food and water inaccessible to wild birds.
- Remove wild bird feeders from areas that poultry can access.
- Keep poultry physically separated from wild birds, if possible.
Jack's New Book Out Now!
Jack Gedney, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Novato and Marin IJ columnist, is the author of The Private Lives of Public Birds: Learning to Listen to the Birds Where We Live. This collection of essays tells the stories of fifteen familiar and iconic birds of California. Each chapter illuminates the life of a single species, from backyard birds like California towhees, scrub-jays, and goldfinches to the less approachable but still near-at-hand like great horned owls and red-tailed hawks. Combining natural history and contemporary research with a wealth of historical, cultural, aesthetic, and first-hand perspectives on birds and how we interact with them, Private Lives provides a unique synthesis that will enrich the slightest and most everyday encounter with the avian world.
To read more about The Private Lives of Public Birds, see our blog.
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