THEOn a beautiful May evening, he could not believe his eyes when he saw Peter Stronach, an ecologist and wildlife photographer, walking along the shores of the Mountain Lake. The beach was full of dead and dying birds: male ducks, several species of gulls, gannets, barbecues and at least 26 pink-footed geese, who were now due to return to their breeding grounds in Iceland.
In the Loch Fleet National Park on the east coast of Scotland, Stronach recorded a total of 72 birds of 17 species, and in the following days many more birds.
But these birds were not killed by a passing beast; They were not the victims of a sudden storm at sea. The cause of these deaths was highly contagious, but for birds it was usually a deadly virus. Avian influenza H5N1 or, as it is more commonly known, avian influenza returned with revenge.
What really worries Stronach is the range of species he has found. “Earlier this spring, we noticed that bird flu was registered only in geese; but since then it has spread to other wild birds, beasts of prey, and seabirds. ”
In previous years it was mainly during the winter; Now, he says, it is affecting populations of certain coastal species like the eel.
Earlier this month, about 20 large squirrels were found dead or dying on Fair Isle elsewhere in Scotland, many of them from other pedigree colonies on the Shetland Islands. Hundreds of squirrels died in 2021 after a serious avian flu epidemic.
For different species, these deaths are a significant barrier, especially at the height of the breeding season. But for large squids and pink-footed geese, the news is particularly worrying. In Scotland, 60% of the world’s population of large squirrels and 90% of the world’s population of pink-footed geese overwinter in the UK. For both species, both on the amber list of protected birds, bird flu could pose a significant threat to their long-term prospects.
Avian influenza is not limited to the United Kingdom. In December 2021, an epidemic in the Hula Valley in northern Israel killed more than 5,000 cranes out of a wintering population of 30,000 birds. The incident, described by the Israeli government as “the most devastating wildlife disaster in the country’s history,” photographed workers dressed in excavation suits as they collected the bodies. After the outbreak, farmers were instructed to slaughter hundreds of thousands of chickens.
In Canada, a deadly form of bird flu has already destroyed the poultry industry, killing nearly 2 million chickens. Now it has passed not only to wild birds, but also to mammals. The disease is most common in waterfowl, but this particular strain attacks crows, hawks, gulls, predators, and even young foxes.
Farmers have blamed wildlife infections, and the United States has become the worst avian flu epidemic. So far, more than 37 million chickens and turkeys have been destroyed, and many more. If a single bird test is positive, farmers must destroy the entire herd.
A report said: “In Wisconsin, a line of dump trucks took several days to collect the carcasses of the birds and stack them in unused fields. Neighbors live by the stench of rotting birds. ” Even the eagle, America’s national bird, was injured.
Could it affect people? The answer is, in very rare cases, yes – usually those who have been in close and prolonged contact with infected poultry, such as agricultural workers. Between 2003 and 2021, nearly 500 people worldwide died after being infected with the virus.
Of course, bird flu we need to take seriously. But Stronach is concerned that the current monitoring and control system is designed to protect commercial poultry firms and is not really adequate for wild bird populations. “We urgently need to study what other species there are and, most importantly, the mechanisms of their spread,” he said.
He is especially concerned that if the dead birds are not collected after the outbreak, they will be cleaned up by rockets, red kites, gulls and squirrels, and the disease will spread even faster.
Anyone who finds dead or dying wild birds should not touch the corpse if they suspect it is a disease; If he is alive, he should not try to save her. In the UK, they must report their results immediately to Defra’s hotline – 03459 335577.