Bird flu has landed in Haldimand-Norfolk.
The founder of Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge said three wild birds at her Haldimand County animal rescue tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1, with more results pending.
Two bald eagles and a red-tailed hawk had “definite symptoms” of avian flu, Chantal Theijn said. The birds were lethargic and unable to fly, and could no longer control their necks or hold their heads up.
“It’s 100 per cent mortality rate once they start showing symptoms, so all three of those birds were euthanized,” Theijn said.
She suspects the eagles contracted H5N1 by scavenging the corpses of migratory waterfowl that were infected elsewhere and brought the virus to Haldimand.
Bird flu has been confirmed in at least five provinces since late last year, part of a worldwide resurgence of the virus. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, more than 260,000 birds have been killed by the virus or euthanized due to outbreaks on poultry farms.
Theijn said the news brings to mind the 2015 avian flu outbreak in Ontario, although she noted the current strain appears to be more deadly.
“This time around, the virus has mutated into something that is extraordinarily lethal to wild birds,” she said. “Whole flocks of seabirds have been found dead—hundreds of birds.”
Egg farmer Charlotte Huitema of Dunnville said the return of bird flu has her family “on edge and concerned.”
“We normally don’t hear about these outbreaks being so close to home,” said Huitema, whose 12,500 hens lay 4.3 million eggs every year.
Her family farm has not had an outbreak, nor has any poultry operation in Haldimand-Norfolk, but Huitema said she has heard of cases in nearby Woodstock and Waterloo.
The CFIA is currently monitoring 16 confirmed avian flu outbreaks in Ontario — 13 among commercial flocks and three in smaller backyard flocks.
The Huitemas have taken steps to guard against the deadly virus and protect their chickens, including twice-daily sweeps of the barn and restricting on-farm visitors to those providing essential services.
Trucks delivering chicken feed or picking up eggs are cleaned and disinfected before loading or unloading and again before they leave the farm, and employees wear protective equipment including “biosecurity overalls” and boot covers.
These precautions add to existing biosecurity measures that are standard on poultry farms, said Nick Huitema, Charlotte’s father.
“All poultry farms in the province, we take biosecurity really seriously,” he said, adding that his family is on “high alert” and has paused visiting friends who keep backyard poultry to minimize the chance of bringing the virus home.
Nick Huitema said he had not heard of any outbreaks on Ontario’s approximately 400 egg farms yet, adding customers need not worry about the safety or availability of eggs at this time.
If an unusual number of the Huitema family’s flock were to fall ill or die inexplicably, the next step would be to call a veterinarian and alert the Feather Board Command Centre, a group that co-ordinates emergency preparedness and disease prevention for Ontario’s poultry industry.
Any confirmed outbreak prompts the declaration of a quarantine zone around the affected operation, with chickens, turkeys and ducks at nearby farms tested and farm-related travel monitored.
The CFIA considers bird flu “a significant national concern” as wild birds migrate to Canada.
Among the researchers Theijn has consulted, opinion is split over whether the virus will die off as temperatures rise or linger throughout the summer.
“It is not easily transmitted to humans, but humans can get it,” she said. “And it’s serious.”
As the virus is spread “primarily by touch,” Theijn’s advice is simple.
“Don’t touch birds, and if you see a sick bird, call for help. Don’t pick up the bird,” she said.
Animal welfare staff have the protective equipment and training to safely handle and transport infected birds, she noted.
“If you absolutely have to handle a bird, wear gloves and wear a mask,” Theijn said.
She has already taken down her home bird feeders and recommends people do the same to keep birds from congregating and potentially transmitting the virus.
Residents who keep backyard chickens should not let them roam free in the yard while the virus is circulating, Theijn added.
“Keep them indoors for their safety, your safety and the safety of neighboring poultry farms,” she said.
“Because if you’re a poultry farmer right now, it’s a really scary time. We all have to work together to keep our flocks as safe as possible.”