MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Staff at the National Butterfly Center recently drained their man-made streams and took down bird feeders to help prevent the spread of avian influenza, or bird flu.
But with no reported cases in South Texas, they refilled the streams and birdbaths and began putting seeds in sterilized feeders.
Now, they are wondering if additional precautions should again be taken after the first human case of avian flu has been found in the United States, Marianna Treviño-Wright, the National Butterfly Center executive director, told Border Report on Friday.
“We’ve had some confusing information coming out so we found it best to err on the side of caution,” she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday night announced the first U.S. human case of avian influenza in Colorado from this specific group of H5 viruses. The patient tested positive for the H5 avian influenza virus after having direct exposure to poultry and having been involved in the culling of birds infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus, according to the CDC.
The only other reported human case has been in the U.K.
As to Treviño-Wright’s question, right now there is no clear and easy answer because guidelines for humans who are exposed to wild birds and recreational birds differ from health guidelines issued for those in the poultry industry, multiple birding experts said.
However Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Spokeswoman Stephanie Salinas Garcia told Border Report on Friday that although the agency has not issued any formal guidance at this time, “those acting out of an abundance of caution may consider pausing backyard bird feeding until nationwide HPAI transmission substantially decreases.”
As of Friday, there have been 35.5 million cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza found in U.S. wild aquatic birds, commercial poultry and backyard or hobbyist flocks since the first bird flu cases were detected in January, according to the CDC.
This is the worst avian flu outbreak since 2015, experts say.
Infected birds have been found in 29 states with 247 outbreaks. But most outbreaks are related to industrial poultry farms and occurred in March.
Those working in the poultry industry should wear gloves and masks, if possible, and avoid coming in contact with droppings or breathing in particles from flocks, according to the CDC.
But guidelines for backyard birders and bird enthusiasts — like the thousands who flock to the South Texas border to catch birds on their migratory routes — vary depending upon the types of birds.
Smaller songbirds pose less risk than larger birds of prey, like hawks and waterfowl, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which Friday updated its online guidelines for recreation birders due to the ongoing bird flu.
It notes that the “transmission of avian influenza from birds to humans is very rare,” and says “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.”
This is based on information from the National Wildlife Disease Program, which also urges to regularly clean all bird feeders and birdbaths.
The virus is more easily spread among large birds, like raptors (birds of prey,) and waterfowl, like geese, Jeffrey Gordon, former president of the American Birding Association said.
According to Cornell Lab, poultry tends to be most infected and while waterfowl often carry and transmit bird flu, these species “rarely get sick from the disease.”
Smaller songbirds tend to not be as infected, or shed as much virus, meaning they aren’t as likely to transmit the disease. “For these reasons, it is unlikely that bird feeders will contribute to an outbreak among songbirds,” according to Cornell Lab.
However, those with songbird bird feeders who also raise poultry are advised to take down bird feeders because the virus so easily spreads among poultry, the university says.
“The key intervention is to keep songbirds away from poultry; it’s less important to keep songbirds away from each other,” Cornell Lab says.
Those with bird nest boxes should wear gloves and masks when cleaning out the boxes.
Cornell Lab also recommends wildlife rehabilitators take precautions when accepting sick birds.
The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota has temporarily suspended public tours due to rising cases in that state but is still taking in wild raptors in need of help, according to the school’s website.
And if you come upon a sick or dead bird, don’t handle it and call state wildlife officials to examine and remove the bird, Cornell Lab says.