As he walked along the shore of Highland Lake on a beautiful May evening, ecologist and wild photographer Peter Stronach could hardly believe what he saw. The beach was littered with dead and dying birds: male faces, several species of gulls, gannets, terns and no less than 26. rose-footed geesewho should now have been on their way back to their Icelandic breeding grounds.
In all, Stronach recorded 72 individual birds of 17 species at the Loch Fleet National Wildlife Refuge on the east coast of Scotland that day, plus many more in the following days.
But these birds were not killed by a passing predator; nor were they the unfortunate victims of a sudden storm on the sea. The cause of these deaths was a highly contagious – and for birds, usually deadly – virus. Avian influenza H5N1 or, as it is more commonly known, bird flureturns with revenge.
What really worries Stronach is the range of species he has found. “Earlier this spring, we noticed that bird flu is limited to geese; but since then it has spread to other wild birds, raptors and seabirds. ”
In previous years, it mainly occurred in winter; now, he says, it is affecting the breeding populations of iconic coastal species such as the quail.
Elsewhere in Scotland earlier this month around 20 big shocks were found dead or dying on Fair Isle, with more reported by other breeding colonies on the Shetland Islands. This followed a major outbreak of bird flu in 2021, when hundreds of shocks died.
For any species, these deaths are a major setback, especially at the height of the breeding season. But for big jolts and rose-footed geese, this news is especially annoying. Scotland is home to 60% of the world’s large breeding population of big jockeys, and 90% of the world’s pink-footed goose population winters in the UK. For these two species, both are on the amber list of preserved birdsbird flu could pose a serious threat to their long-term future.
Bird flu is not limited to the UK. In December 2021, an outbreak in the Hula Valley, in northern Israel, killed more than 5,000 cranes from a winter population of 30,000 birds. In what the Israeli government called “the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the nation,” workers wearing hazmat costumes were photographed collecting the corpses. After the outbreak, farmers were instructed to slaughter hundreds of thousands of chickens.
In Canada, a deadly strain of bird flu has already destroyed the poultry industry, resulting in nearly 2 million chickens being killed. Now it has moved not only to wild birds but also to mammals. While the disease is usually limited to waterfowl, this particular strain has attacked crows, jays, gulls, raptors and even. young foxes.
United States suffers from what appears to be the worst outbreak of bird flu – which farmers blame on the transmission of wild birds. More than 37 million chickens and turkeys have been slaughtered so far, and more will come. If only one bird is positive, the farmers must destroy the entire herd.
How one report noted: “In Wisconsin, rows of dump trucks took days to gather flocks of bird carcasses and store them in unused fields. Neighbors live with the stench of decaying birds. ” Even the bald eaglethe national bird of the United States, was hit.
Could it also affect people? The answer is, in very rare cases, yes – usually those, as farm workers, who have been in close and prolonged contact with infected domestic birds. From 2003 to 2021, nearly 500 people around the world died after catching the virus.
Clearly, bird flu is something we need to take seriously. But Stronach is concerned that the current monitoring and surveillance system is designed to protect commercial bird companies, and is not really suitable for wild bird populations. “We need urgent research to find out what other species it is found in, and, most importantly, the mechanisms by which it spreads,” he says.
He is especially concerned that if dead birds are not collected after an outbreak, they can be carcassed by hawks, red kites, gulls and squirrels, thus spreading the disease even faster.
Anyone who finds a dead or dying wild bird that they suspect may have the disease should not touch the carcass; nor should they try to save him if he is still alive. In the UK, they immediately report their findings to Defra’s helpline – 03459 335577.