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Published May 13, 2022

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)

The Audubon Society of Rhode Island has been monitoring the rapidly developing situation involving the current outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) across the United States. The vast majority of birds affected are those on poultry farms and in backyard chicken flocks. As of 22 April, there have been a total of 31.36 million birds affected by HPAI across 29 states. Delaware, Iowa, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are the states with the greatest number of affected birds.

The current strain of the virus, which is believed to have originated in Europe, has not currently been detected in the state of Rhode Island and is believed to present no health risk to humans. While HPAI has not yet been detected in Rhode Island, a number of concerning developments require continued vigilance and planning. States bordering Rhode Island (MA and CT) have documented the virus in backyard bird flocks and to date, 400 birds have been impacted. While these numbers seem low in comparison to states where poultry production is more prominent, the virus is likely to continue spreading without proper precaution.

Perhaps the most concerning trend at this time is the documentation of HPAI in a growing number of wild bird species. The virus has been documented in Turkey Vultures, cormorants, Blue Jays, crows, geese, swans, ducks, Sanderlings, Great Blue Herons, Great Horned Owls, Snowy Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks and Bald Eagles. To date, dozens of Bald Eagles have died from HPAI across 14 different states, including Vermont, Maine and New York. Although it is hoped that the disease will decrease as the breeding season begins (as birds space themselves out), current conditions for transmission remain high. This is largely due to the fact that many bird species remain in close proximity to one another during periods of migration. Because of this transmission risk, multiple states are now recommending that homeowners take down bird feeders, which serve as collection points for many bird species. The virus is transmitted between birds via saliva and fecal secretions and bird feeders are ideal locations for transmission via these two pathways. Spring and summer also tend to be periods of the year when natural sources of food are in abundance and supplemental food sources, such as feeders, are not necessary.

The capacity of HPAI to be transmitted to and carried by different groups of birds is still not well understood, but it is believed that the potential for transmission does exist across all avian taxa. Because of the uncertainty associated with which groups of birds are capable of transmitting the virus, experts recommend the removal of all bird feeders, even hummingbird feeders.

Joining with concerned environmental and scientific organizations across the country, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island recommends the cessation of bird feeding at this time. If homeowners are unable or unwilling to stop feeding birds, efforts should be made to clean feeders regularly to reduce transmission risk. Should you encounter any wild birds that appear sick, please discontinue feeding immediately. Dead and dying wild birds should be reported to the RI Department of Environmental Management, Division of Fish and Wildlife by calling 401-789-0281.

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