By Mark Heinz, outdoors reporter
Though it’s long been a killer of wild waterfowl and domestic poultry, bird flu has started taking a toll on Wyoming’s raptors. It’s still uncertain how badly it will spread among birds of prey, a wildlife disease expert said.
“These viruses are always re-sorting and reorganizing,” Michael Pipas, a wildlife disease biologist with USDA Wildlife Services, told Cowboy State Daily. “In this case, instead of just killing waterfowl and poultry it (avian influenza) has started killing birds of prey.”
So far, up to 100 eagles, hawk and falcons are known to have died of the disease in Wyoming, he said. The infections are thought to have begun this spring.
“It’s not like birds of prey are falling off branches left and right,” but USDA and other agencies are trying to keep watch and hoping that the virus doesn’t take off in raptors the way it has in other bird species.
Low Risk To Humans
An outbreak of bird flu among humans in China in March 2013 set the world on edge. It resulted in roughly 700 infections 384 deaths. There have been only sporadic reports of human infections since, according to the Centers For Disease Control website.
The bird flu strain causing the current epidemic among birds is far less transmissible to humans than the 2013 China strain, Pipas said. It’s currently listed as “low risk” to the general human population.
However, it still can infect people who have close contact with infected birds or the carcasses of those killed by the virus, said Pipas and Wyoming Game and Fish public information officer Sara DiRienzo.
“Game and Fish reminds the public to not touch or handle sick or dead birds, and do not allow domestic animals like dogs and cats to feed on sick or dead birds,” DiRienzo said in an email to Cowboy State Daily.
The current epidemic among birds in Wyoming and the rest of the U.S. started spreading during the spring waterfowl migrations, Pipas said.
Earlier, in December 2021, it killed more than 5,000 wild cranes in northern Israel, Cowboy State Daily columnist Cat Urbigkit wrote in April.
During the early stages of the outbreak in Wyoming, many of the infected birds weren’t displaying many symptoms, Pipas said. That might be changing, with more of the sick birds, including raptors, displaying symptoms such as lethargy or partial paralysis.
USDA Wildlife Services relies on reports from Game and Fish and other agencies to keep track of the virus’ spread in Wyoming, Pipas said. Game and Fish, in turn, is seeking help from the public, DiRienzo said.
People should report finding large birds, including raptors, that are displaying symptoms or that are found dead, she said. Also be on the lookout for groups of five or more smaller birds, such as sparrows or pigeons, found dead.