Bird flu viruses can occasionally evolve into forms that are deadly to domestic chickens and turkeys. These viruses are known as "highly pathogenic avian influenza" (HPAI) viruses, which refers to their ability to cause disease in domestic poultry, not in humans or any other animals.
In 1996, a strong form of bird flu caused by a strain of virus known as Asian HPAI H5N1 sickened and killed birds in Asia, Africa, and Europe. After close contact with infected domestic birds, more than 100 people in Asia died from this virus. However, this strain of HPAI has not been detected in North America.
In 2014, a bird flu strain was detected at a British Columbia poultry farm. In response, the Washington State Department of Agriculture increased random testing among poultry flocks in areas near the Canadian border, and alerted veterinarians and bird owners around the state.
This heightened awareness among bird owners led to a report of a gyrfalcon that died after eating a wild duck in northwest Washington. The gyrfalcon, which was legally used for hunting in Whatcom County, tested positive for HPAI. In addition, a northern pintail duck that was part of a group of waterfowl that died from an unrelated fungal infection in Whatcom County, tested positive for carrying the HPAI bird flu virus.
HPAI strains have since spread in backyard poultry flocks, commercial poultry, wild waterfowl, and wild and captive raptors (e.g. hawks, falcons). None of the HPAI strains circulating in North America have been identified as risks to human health.
From 2005-2011, WDFW tested over 10,000 wild birds for bird flu viruses. Viruses were found in about 10 percent of all birds tested, but none were associated with any illness or mortality.
How to prevent the spread of bird flu when bird hunting
- Do not dispose of processed carcasses in the field where they could be eaten by raptors. Instead, carcasses should be bagged and placed in the garbage, buried, or incinerated.
- Take special precautions to ensure that all equipment (boots, cloths, vehicles) are cleaned and disinfected to prevent the spread of diseases.
Reduce the risk of contracting a wildlife disease
Bird flu viruses are not easily transmissible from birds to people, but without proper hygiene, it could develop into another form that spreads readily from person to person. While it is extremely unlikely that hunters or people feeding wild birds could contract bird flu, the following common-sense precautions are recommended to reduce the risk of contracting any wildlife disease:
- Do not harvest or handle wild birds that are obviously sick or found dead.
- Wear disposable gloves while cleaning game or cleaning bird feeders.
- Do not eat, drink, or smoke while cleaning game.
- Wash hands with soap and water or alcohol wipes immediately after handling game or cleaning bird feeders.
- Wash tools and work surfaces used to clean game birds with soap and water, then disinfect with a 10 percent solution of chlorine bleach.
- Separate raw meat, and anything it touches, from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination.
- Cook game birds thoroughly. Meat should reach an internal temperature of 155 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill disease organisms and parasites