Internet news agencies are adding avian influenza headlines daily, and as waterfowl migrate northwards our social media feeds are streaming with ducks and geese succumbed to bird flu. Should we be worried? What’s bird flu, how long’s it existed, how does it spread, what are its different forms? Why are waterfowl important vectors? Will it be deleterious to waterfowl populations? Dr. Rebecca Poulson is an assistant research scientist at University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study. Her specialties are virology and wildlife disease. Keeping it simple and conversational, she sheds much needed light on the bird flu topic in today’s highly informative, must-listen episode.

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What Does the Bird Flu Mean to Me? 

I’ve reached out today to Dr. Rebecca Powelson who is assistant research scientist at South-Eastern Cooperative of Wildlife Diseases College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia. Her expertise is virology and wildlife disease. 

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere with a special topic today that’s covering the world, covering the headline, it’s been around it seems like for decades but all of a sudden it is first and foremost on everybody’s mind if you’re a duck hunter. If you google bird flu or avian influenza, the headlines are rampant. Over 200 birds suspected to have died in the avian flu in Chicago area. Bald eagles in the US are contracting the bird flu highly pathogenic avian influenza confirmed in a bunch of counties. UM Raptor Center cautions against feeding against birds and you go down and “48,000 birds be killed due to avian flu somewhere up north”. Avian flu in New York City, “Is it safe to put out bird feeders”? The other Star Tribune is saying, “It’s time to take down your bird feeders because of bird flu”. And if you look on your social media feeds, there’s a lot of drunk looking waterfowl, dead waterfowl floating, we’re hearing reports as the snow geese migration migrates north, we’re hearing reports all about bird flu. What does it mean to me? What does it mean to you? What does it mean for the birds? I’ve reached out today to Dr. Rebecca Powelson who is assistant research scientist at South-Eastern Cooperative of Wildlife Diseases College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia. Her expertise is virology and wildlife disease. How are you this morning, Becky?

Rebecca Powelson: I’m great Ramsey, how are you?

Ramsey Russell: I’m good. I met your technician, Debb Carter back in Texas back this fall and she was swabbing the heck out of blue wing teal and I didn’t think anything about it and just monitoring because this bird flu been around forever. And aren’t we all now, aren’t everybody listening and everybody on the internet, a bunch of disease experts after the last couple of years. But boy, I tell you what it took on a whole new meaning, when I was down in Louisiana this weekend with Debb and we were again, a lot of swabbing and a lot of blood samples. One day, 100% of all the blue wing teal were swabbed and monitored because it is hitting this fevered pitch. And I’d like to back up, Beck, can you introduce yourself in any other way? Did I do a good job introducing you?

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, Ramsey, I think you did a great job and I’ll do my best to field questions here as you throw them at me.

Bird Flu for Dummies

…what is bird flu and how does it work? What are we dealing with here?

Ramsey Russell: Well, you’re speaking to – this is like bird flu for dummies. We’re just a bunch of duck hunters, not virologist, not disease experts but Becky, my earliest recollection of bird flu was at least 20 years ago. There were headlines going out through the Department of Wildlife to use caution while we were handling birds and handling doves and I can remember plucking doves one Labor Day weekend way back when, when I still had a full set of hair and a lot of the men wearing gloves when they were plucking ducks and I didn’t and I’m like, man, if the world has come to where I can’t pluck a limit of ducks with bare hands, it just ain’t my world anymore, but things have evolved. For 20 years, it just seemed like it wasn’t that big a deal. I heard some poultry die offs or some different things like that, but it really didn’t seem to affect me personally in terms of the resource that I hunt. But now, let me ask an intelligent question, I should ask 20 years ago, what is bird flu and how does it work? What are we dealing with here?

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, I know, that’s a great question. And it’s a complicated answer, it’s a complicated system. But you’re sort of right that 20 year pinpoint on your map there and your recollection, 20 or so years ago in the mid-90s there’s sort of all over the headlines, this bad bird flew in China, affecting all kinds of species and getting into poultry and all that good stuff. But to zoom back even a little further, a lot of what we know about bird flu, about avian influenzas is based on what we call low pathogenesis viruses or low path to sort of abbreviate it. And these viruses circulate and sort of have co-evolved pretty freely in waterfowl for decades and decades and they don’t really cause any ill effect, it’s not quite fair to say it’s like us getting a cold in birds, it probably even manifest with less effects than that. And these viruses and these birds have been moving and involving for decades and decades. So, sort of bird flu or at least the viruses that kind of lethal that have been out there and birds, especially in ducks and even in shorebirds for years and years kind of under the radar, they don’t really affect the birds and they kind of go about their happy business. But that definitely has changed more recently as you alluded to Ramsey, there’s one of these bad news viruses that has sort of popped up in North America and it is really, unfortunately, kind of wreaking havoc on all kinds of birds and in lots of different places. So yeah, sort of the wildfire of bird flu I think is we can now simply say is in North America, which is kind of unfortunate, though probably not all that unexpected, given what we know about how far birds can move and the numbers of species that can carry these viruses. So yeah, we’re sort of in the middle of a little bit of a mess right now for sure.

Is the Bird Flu in Waterfowl?

Birds can have antibodies kind of like we do when we see a new bug or a new virus out there, so they can build up immune to the virus is they see all the time and that actually can help to protect them from sort of this bad news virus, that’s now here in our fifty-nifty United States.

Ramsey Russell: How and when was bird flu first detected in waterfowl or a better question is why? I mean, who was doing what that, it just flew up on somebody’s radar that migratory game birds are vectors or have this disease? And smart people like yourself must have known that these diseases can mutate and become more dangerous cause it flew up on your radar. And where do they say that avian influenza originated? I’ve heard China, I thought I just heard you say China, did it originate in China?

Rebecca Powelson: Well, yeah, so this sort of this bad news, so I kind of mentioned low path in the last little section there. Highly pathogenetic viruses or high path viruses seemingly sort of have their origins across the pond in China where production systems are a lot different. There are a lot of wild ducks and birds in cages in and around sort of more domestic birds that are used for meat more routinely and lots of people in those systems. And I think that the sort of paradigm is that, yeah, that this sort of bad virus sort of emerged there through mutation and adaptation years and years ago and it’s just sort of been percolating in the background with occasional pop ups here and there. A number of years ago got pretty well entrenched in Europe. There’s been lots of wild bird mortality noted in lots of different countries in Europe and lots of different species. And unfortunately, it seems like those viruses may be in the late winter of last year, hitched a ride on some birds kind of moving across the North Atlantic and made their way into Canada here a lot closer to home. There’s been a lot of great virologists working on influenza, studying birds and better understanding how these viruses affect them and moving them for decades and decades and we’re just trying these days to build on all that great work that’s been done and learn more about them. Both the low path version which again doesn’t really yield any negative effects on these birds and in fact, may even sort of protect them. Birds can have antibodies kind of like we do when we see a new bug or a new virus out there, so they can build up immune to the virus is they see all the time and that actually can help to protect them from sort of this bad news virus, that’s now here in our fifty-nifty United States.

Ramsey Russell: I can remember many years ago, nature of my business, we’re traveling around, we’re hunting birds on different continents and a lot of clients import them back. And one of the craziest things I’ve ever dealt with and I’ve got some more technical questions, I’m just rambling right now is, we went hunting over in Russia and to import those birds, we had to get deep off into some paperwork. I can’t even remember the name of that long form. It was deep and those bird skins had to – coming out of Russia, coming out of some of these countries had to be certified and qualified skinned and treated and then signed off by a registered veterinarian of sorts. And then with that paperwork, could they be shipped into the States. And to take a US Department of Agriculture Protocol and put it in a country like Russia is like round pegs in square holes, it took forever. And mercifully around 2011, when Mexico became a USDA recognized HPAI country, they said, oh, well, we’ve got these US approved taxidermist around the country, we’ll just let the birds come in. And so that now when you bring birds in from around the world from an HPAI recognized country, they’re kept kind of in quarantine with that yellow tape, you are go in through customs, they generate a 1678 that goes to the USDA veterinarian in charge for the state, they’re going to let him know that I got HPAI birds coming into my state so he can follow up with him if he wants to. And it really kind of made life simple on my end. But see all of my dealings all of a sudden have been dealing with just government paperwork, I mean, who cares what it is, how it is, but now it’s kind of starting to affect me. When I start seeing lots and lots of woozy birds out here or dead birds in social media, I’m like, man, where could this go? This weekend out there with the biologist banding birds, Debb was out there swabbing and doing some stuff like that, I heard them say something along the lines of what you’ve been saying. We’ve got low path and high path. And I just heard and I’m a dummy, I heard a distinction between bird flu and high path, highly pathogenic. What has happened? Where did it go from a disease sitting in birds that they have that could protect them because of antibodies and stuff like that to, uh-oh this is something different, this is something to mutate. What’s happening?

Waterfowl as Vectors

Birds that are hunted make it easy to get samples and there’s a lot of interest in those species for lots of different reasons as an incredible natural resource. So we know a lot about influenza because of mallards, they’ve been sampled a lot…

Rebecca Powelson: It’s a great question and it’s a little tricky, these viruses because there are bunches and bunches of different kinds of them, they all kind of all look a little different and I don’t know, maybe your listeners have heard of kind of, we call influenza viruses by different subtypes, so the one we’re hearing about now is, is high path H5N1 and that’s just kind of related to how the proteins on the virus look and how they kind of differ from one another. But you might remember, gosh, back when was it already 13 years ago in 2009, when we had the H1, the swine flu, the H1N1 virus that was hitting people pretty good. So there’s kind of different H’s and N’s, there’s different subtypes, there’s lots of them in nature. But it’s the H5 that tends to have this ability to kind of turn into a bad one and it’s related to some changes that happen in that H protein that lives on the surface of these viruses, they just sort of are able to start to affect and infect different organs in the birds. So when we talk about low path, those viruses tend to like to replicate in the bellies of waterfowl and shorebirds, they’re kind of adapted to the GI again, don’t really cause much ill effect. However, these bad viruses, these high path viruses as they sort of change are able to affect a lot of different organs. so we don’t just find them in the GI tractor in the feces. So you’ve probably seen the folks out there in the field swab on both ends of the duck and that’s largely cause this virus. The virus which is routinely find is just kind of shed through the feces. So we can swab that end and get a good indicator as to whether or not there is virus present in that bird or not. But this bad news virus, it can go pretty since systemic affect a lot of organs. And you sort of mentioned, you see they’re on the world of social media, these birds acting kind of woozy and drunk and it’s largely due to this just really is the stomach kind of infection they got affecting all their organs, the brains get hit pretty hard and so that kind of that woozy kind of lethargy. We’ve had reports of birds that upon someone coming up on them don’t even try to fly away, it’s really been devastating. But that being said, we talked a little bit about this, some birds out there having antibodies being a little bit protected so that this disease can also manifest just with no real symptoms. A lot of the early detection in the US back I guess late January, even in the late December were from hunter harvested apparently healthy birds, lots of mallards and wigeons along the eastern shore bird here were being hunted, being swabbed at check stations and lo and behold, they in fact were carrying that virus around with them. So the media is dotted with it, the woozy birds, but in fact, it could be the case that there are lots of birds out there that might have it, but not actually be getting sick from it. And there’s lots of reasons for that, but it really kind of got a broad spectrum of how it might be looking in the critters we’re seeing out there.

Ramsey Russell: So, low path would be just kind of latent. It exists but it’s really not manifesting any symptoms or anything going on inside the bird it’s just there. Is that kind of how you – it’s just there?

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, I think that that’s perfect. It just kind of we think it may be kind of co-evolved the virus and the bird and they just hangs out for a number of days, the birds build up an immune response but they still fly fine, they still eat and move fine, there’s no real evidence that it hurts them in any way.

Ramsey Russell: When they get high path or they begin to exhibit some of the symptoms, is it the same thing going on inside them that when I catch the flu, they running a fever, what metabolically is going on inside that bird?

Rebecca Powelson: Oh man, that’s a good question. And for our part, the work we’re kind of doing here, we support a lot of our member states, so we are kind of a cooperative and we bring in birds and all kinds of different species. But for this topic, birds from our state partners and from some federal government partners to sort of figure out the cause of mortality or morbidity. And so often the birds were getting to kind of come through our building here or have already been deceased or have been quite sick. I don’t know about fever necessarily in them, but we kind of talked about a lot of them having seizures becoming very lethargic, I think this virus gets in them. It can be kind of replicate and it can kind of grow in lots of different tissues and it causes some lesions in those tissues and just really just kind of rips through them. So a little bit different than when you or I might get it that’s sort of in our lungs, coughing a lot, got the sniffles and not feeling so good kind of upper respiratory, we have a fever for a few days and then kind of breaks and we go on about our merry way. But for these poor birds the ones that get affected real bad, typically it’s in all their organs and they’re dying, they’re coming pretty quick from it. But we have to remember some species or some birds depending on timing or how much of the virus they saw are actually maybe not being impacted at all, which makes it kind of tricky to get our finger on the pulse of it.

Ramsey Russell: Well, why are waterfowl so important as vectors?

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, I mean, you mentioned that the teal being recently swabbed and looked at there in Louisiana and Texas. A lot of the early work for flu, a lot of what we know is in mallards.  Birds that are hunted make it easy to get samples and there’s a lot of interest in those species for lots of different reasons as an incredible natural resource. So we know a lot about influenza because of mallards, they’ve been sampled a lot, we think we have the best sort of estimates for this low path virus in that species worldwide, but they’re just sampled a whole bunch. We sampled teal they travel so far, they’re coming up out of South America headed north, they’re sort of easy to sample. And given how far they can travel and you can appreciate far better than me because you’ve had eyeballs on these guys, how quick they can move, right? So these birds can be carrying these viruses or any kind of pathogen pretty long distances in short amounts of time and sort of as they poop literally depositing it different places as they continue their movement. So, yeah, I mean, waterfowl are great targets for a lot of those reasons and just insert a little plug here we also do a lot of work with shorebirds.

Ramsey Russell: They have some pretty amazing migrations themselves. In fact, I would say probably more than waterfowl. I can’t name the species that do this, but there are shorebird species that I’ll see in October up in Utah and those same flocks are down in Mexico in the different estuaries. But there are shorebirds that will originate up in the Arctic and go clear down to Tierra Del Fuego and back just in one season and that’s amazing.

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, you got it. I mean, the shorebird migration is just beautiful to see, obviously, but just incredible. So we do work with short boards too to keep eyes on the viruses moving in these buggers because they’re the same thing, they’re traveling so fast so far and if they’ve got a bug in them, if they got this bad virus or even the low path one, it’s like to try to just keep track of their movement and for waterfowl and for shorebirds, how far they’re moving, where they’re moving, what viruses they got and just trying to – like I kind of said before, keep a finger on the pulse just to understand what’s happening out there. Because it’s important, these are incredible natural resources for so many reasons and we’re doing the best we can to understand what’s going on in them.

Ramsey Russell: I know a lot of you all’s samplings, when I met Debb, I was at a teal hunting camp in southwest Texas and 150 miles away, Mama Duck Liz was over there doing some sampling, I guess from banding activities. I know you all are around the banding activities, how are you monitoring or catching shorebirds and what species of shorebirds?

Rebecca Powelson: Oh, yeah. So for the most part our target is Ruddy turnstone, I think all shorebirds are beautiful, but they’re these in their spring plumage, they’re just this bright kind of orange and black and white patterns, really beautiful birds. And kind of talk about mallards, we know a lot about influenza in mallards in North America, the same is sort of true for Ruddy turnstones they’re pretty susceptible to the virus certain times a year and they move long distances, so sort of turnstones and red knots are kind of our targets. And for those birds, we typically can just pick up feces off the beaches off the various sites we find them at and that, and again, these viruses are kind of hanging out in their bellies so we can get good indicators of their infection based on their poop quite literally. So feces really represents – feces are a coequal swab represent great ways to look for the virus. As we move through the spring, we do a lot of work up in Delaware Bay kind of situated there between New Jersey and Delaware with some great teams up there, who’ve been doing shorebird work and conservation for decades and decades. And when we get into those two situations, we do cannon netting to get our hands on birds or well – sorry, these groups do the cannon netting and then we kind of get to swab them and help them do all their measurements and banding and that kind of stuff. So it’s a mix, but for the most part, when we’re closer to home here in the southeast, we just pick up fecal samples from the beach.

Why Are Bluewings the Ideal Vector?

And I thought Debb told me that blue wings were one of the primary vectors in the waterfowl world just because of their life behavior and their extreme migrations.

Ramsey Russell: Why blue wings? It seems to be a lot of interesting blue wings. And I thought Debb told me that blue wings were one of the primary vectors in the waterfowl world just because of their life behavior and their extreme migrations. I mean, for example, blue wings are interesting to me, they’re one of the first to leave Canada after breeding, there’s some of the last to come back, I mean, I’ve got pictures just recently as yesterday from Guatemala and there are still unbelievable amounts of blue wing teal down in Guatemala. And I encounter them if I start hunting in September and run all the way through March, I encounter them in a hunting scenario 7 months, so they’re straddled through the continent in as much as Mother Nature will let them throughout the year and they tend to congregate in shallow waters, maybe some stagnant type waters and still waters and big populations. And I understood from her that, that made them likely candidates to carry and transmit this disease. Are blue wings and the Ruddy turnstones are they two of the primary vectors that you all – is that why you are monitoring them so heavily?

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, I think that’s a good representation of that. And I mean, another big pieces that we talked about the hunting of blue wing teal and all these interest in them. We’ve got, I think as you sort of alluded to such great connections with folks on the ground down closer to where you are in Louisiana and Texas who have banding these birds throughout the spring and then running some great hunting operations through the fall and winter and we can just sample them in good numbers. We’ve got great collaborations with folks on the ground who can facilitate our ability to sample them. So yeah, teal though are pretty susceptible in the spring down your way there’s – let’s see, I jotted down some numbers prevalence or kind of the amount of flu in those birds can be upwards say 10%, 12%, 15%, maybe for every 100 birds but again, Ramsey, I’m just talking about the low path which is critical piece of this. But it’s not a lot of flu down there in those birds in the spring, but we can sort of track it through swab in them and we can get them in nice big numbers, so it helps us to kind of really feel good about what we’re estimating in terms of how much virus is kind of in those ducks as they’re moving through. I misspoke a little, so in March and April, like maybe upwards of 6% of the birds we can pick up this low path flu and that varies every year, there’s lots of variation seasonally and annually. And we sort of couple that with like what we see in the fall, so thinking like Minnesota big staging areas, lots of hatch here ducks on the ground and mallards. And we get prevalence estimates up there and through the late summer, early fall, upwards of like 40% of birds sometimes we can pick up the slow path virus. And so mallards, teal are good targets, you mentioned how far they fly and how fast they are, is a good reason to sort of target them. And Ruddy turnstone, sort of as we think about shorebirds as they’re susceptible, we can catch them in decent numbers. A lot of our interest here and I know I’m getting tangential away from ducks, I’m a shore bird enthusiast for sure. But we can sample shorebirds down here, so South Carolina, Georgia, Florida throughout the winter in the early spring way before these mass migrations happen. So that species is just a good one to target in terms of shorebirds because it’s a kind of a good indicator of what’s happening in the flu world. But other shore birds are to – this bad virus seemingly was first identified in a gull species sort of in Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. So, gulls are also another sort of important part of this really complicated system.

Does the Bird Flu Transmit Between Bird Species?

And even between Louisiana, Texas down there, you’re looking at blues and reds, but there’s a whole spectrum of different colored viruses amongst all those different birds. 

Ramsey Russell: I got a lot of questions out of that, but I’ll start with this on the blue wings. She had explained to me like, she was in Southeast Texas and she said, these birds have like a certain bird flu matrix. And everything I know about this flu, this virus is, I think of it as like a flu molecule round and on its surface it’s got two different kinds of structures. One is called H and one is called N, there’s a lot of different H’s, there’s a lot of different N’s. And she said, so this one over here just think it’s red and the ones over there that mama duck in Louisiana, which is just 150 miles down the road those are blue. So they both got flu but right now what’s important is that they’re okay, they got this low path, it’s different H’s and different N’s, but we’ve got to monitor it just to make sure something doesn’t explode, something doesn’t start to go on. And so that was interesting to me is like this subset of birds had one series of bird flu and this set of birds just very nearby had a different subset that was very interesting to me. So my question is, are these birds, teal or waterfowl, are they able to transmit their flu to another species of birds? I mean, will this bird flu from this waterfowl species or this shorebird necessarily go to bald eagles or necessarily go to robins and cardinals or chickens? I mean, is it all transmittable? Is it all kind of one in the same, it can go anywhere in the bird world or does it have to mutate?

Rebecca Powelson: No, I think, the birds with the blue form and the birds with the red form, each other could be infected with those blues and reds. There’s blues and reds could kind of keep the analogy could turn purple and infect within the same species. But yeah, these viruses are – for the most part we’ll say or can be transferred kind of the way they look to teal with the blue virus that blue virus could be passed on to another bird it comes into contact with, potentially for sure. And even between Louisiana, Texas down there, you’re looking at blues and reds, but there’s a whole spectrum of different colored viruses amongst all those different birds. You brought up the bald eagle, oh man, bald eagles are getting hit pretty hard at least here in the Atlantic Coast by this bad virus. And the thought there is that these buggers and vultures also are scavenging carcasses of dead waterfowl, dead shorebirds or maybe gulls they come across and then they’re becoming infected through consumption of those contaminated carcasses. Passerine, cardinals and sort of the songbirds we think about, they can be infected with influenza, but that’s kind of if we’re doing like fancy lab trials here and we control a lot of conditions, we can maybe infect those species. But for the most part we haven’t detected this bad virus nor really many low path viruses in passerine and songbirds and those ones that might be coming to our feeders that we love to look at which I think is a good thing. The chance isn’t 0, of course and unfortunately, but thus far and kind of with all our historic evidence there are definitely species that don’t seem to get hit by this virus, by these viruses, whether it’s just a matter of opportunity they’re not in contact with birds that do have it, there’s something just unique about them, maybe that makes them not be susceptible to it, the verdict sort of out on that. But yeah, these reds and blues and greens and yellows and purples and grays and all the other colors that are out there they can mix up with each other, they can be transmitted to other birds and unfortunately and currently with the case of raptors and bald eagles and other scavengers, they’re picking up the bright red and they are turning it super bright red, fire engine red unfortunately.

Ramsey Russell: From where I live in Mississippi, if you head east, you’re kind of in the heart of Mississippi poultry country and a lot of chicken houses, a lot of poultry producers and my kids went to school with a family that was in the poultry industry and they were basically like, they didn’t want the boys over during duck season. They would just say them stay away, if they’d been duck hunting, it has come out to see their Children. Are domestic poultry more predisposed to this because of genetic, whatever? Are they more predisposed to these kinds of diseases? Is that why you see so many just massive dowels or massive killings or euthanization of domestic poultry than maybe what we’re aware of in waterfowl? Because they carry it, they’ve had it. Are they just a little more resilient to this thing?

Rebecca Powelson: I think they probably are. I kind of mentioned some of these estimates of how much flu stay up in Minnesota in the early fall. Lots of birds seeing lots of viruses, lots of different blues and yellows and red looking viruses, they build up some immunity, they don’t tend to be negatively infected by that low path one that might be providing some protection against the bad one that’s here. A lot of the reports or detection so far have been in hunter harvested waterfowl that appear to be healthy, so presumably those birds are going to not succumb to the virus that they had. But yeah, poultry are really prone to this thing we think about and here down in Georgia to pass tons of poultry holdings and lots of poultry houses and there are lots of birds in small confined spaces it might not take much for some virus to get in on boots or on – I don’t know, maybe like fomites stuff that’s kind of carried around on our person on our trucks or vehicles, virus can get into these turkey and chicken populations and really wreak havoc. And a lot of our response in those situations to try to dampen down and mitigate is to go in when it’s been detected and kind of depopulate that flock to stop the spread and to kind of get it in a box at that point in time. So yeah, I mean, we recommend trying to – if you got listeners out there who probably definitely hunters, if they’ve got backyard flocks at home or backyard birds just to try to keep the boots, you might be out hunting in, separate from the boots you’re out feeding your chickens or your poultry with and just good hand washing and that kind of stuff just to mitigate that the chance that you might be spreading it from waterfowl or from the birds that you see out in the field to the birds you might have at your house.

Ramsey Russell: We had some pet easter ducks one time, just a little white ducks, Aflac duck running around the backyard, the kids got them as chicks and they grew up, one thing I learned about ducks from that observation for a period of about a year, ducks do 3 things they eat, shit and quack that’s all they do, that’s all the duck does in your backyard is those 3 things. And I can understand if I’ve been out hunting wild birds and I come home and I walk around the backyard or touch things, I get that on how it can be transmitted to the backyard. And I understand how if I’ve got wetlands, how waterfowl interacting in that water resource it’s in their digestive track fecal matter transmitted through the water, I get how it passes on to birds like that. But it just seems like a quantum leap for wild mallards or wild blue wings to transmit it over here inside a poultry house. I don’t know how in the world that would happen other than some invisible vector kind of just linking the two. They seemed to me to be very exclusive of each other.

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, I know. And I think wild birds so often get the bad rap because we are and have to be concerned about poultry as a food source and such a monster industry but it’s the fault of the wild birds that this gets in. And wild birds are definitely carrying it, they’re flying overhead and defecating and I hope back in 2014 and 2015 there was a pretty significant outbreak of this bad virus. Sure, you’ve heard, you read about it Ramsey, I think somewhere upwards of $3 billion in agricultural damages and turkey and poultry holdings and 50 million or more birds, either turkey and chickens died or had to be depopulated because of this virus. You think about airflow about sort of fomites, there could even be mechanical vectors, not necessarily vectors but things that might be able to get into the poultry houses. Gosh, it’s a tricky, complicated question and I don’t want to speak too much on it because it is so hard to track down and I don’t want to cast wild birds in the negative light because there’s such an incredible natural resource and we need to really be focused on.

Implications of the Bird Flu

I mean, could it transmit to us humans and if it did, is it going to kill us too or is it just going to be another type of flu?

Ramsey Russell: I’m going to circle back around the poultry here in a minute. What about safety regards humans? I mean, obviously, if a percent of waterfowl have low path, probably most everybody listening has harvested and ingested waterfowl that have latent bird flu and it didn’t kill us and we didn’t get sick, but what about is this thing evolves? Now, we’re seeing wild migratory birds out on the landscape, sick, drunk, acting sick and dumb and drunk and dying. Could it evolve or there’s anybody – and I don’t know, maybe you all are talking about this, this is why you’re monitoring. What implications could it have? I mean, could it transmit to us humans and if it did, is it going to kill us too or is it just going to be another type of flu?

Rebecca Powelson: No, it’s a great question. And I think luckily the answer so far is that the risk of humans is super low, which is really a good thing obviously. Unfortunately, as scientists, we hate the answer we don’t know, but unfortunately that is true, the longer this virus is out there circulating, you’ve talked about it mutating and changing and coming into contact with different birds, we can’t say for sure that this won’t be something that becomes more dangerous to people. But right now the risk is low I think and hopefully I’m not miss speaking but this similar virus has been in Europe for quite a few years now, lots of wild birds, lots of poultry holdings. I think there’s only one record of a fellow, I think in the UK testing positive for the virus. He lived and interacted really closely with poultry he had in his backyard and they had the virus, to my knowledge, he didn’t get sick, he definitely didn’t succumb to the virus. So, I think that that’s a pretty good track record right now, I think the CDC still says the risk to humans is pretty low. Our group and others were trying to get a handle on that and doing some different experiments to figure out how bad this virus might be to people. But for right now, I think that the risk is not 0, we can never say 0 unfortunately, but I think it’s pretty low. And simple things try and avoid touching your mouth or face if you’ve just been handling some birds you just hunted, washing your hands before eating or taking a slug of soda that kind of thing, I think we’re all just good practices for sure, as much as they can be carried out.

Ramsey Russell: It just made me wonder, like I read somewhere in the past couple of years that Coronavirus COVID was detected in Whitetail deer. And so I wonder if some of the flu season, flu strains that have been prevalent in humans have ever passed through waterfowl before. I mean, I never really thought of that, I got the flu, it’s flu season, I never thought that the wildlife in my backyard had the same flu hopping around the bushes with it, I mean, is it like that?

Rebecca Powelson: That’s an awesome question. And that the wild Whitetail deer COVID thing has been a topic a lot of conversations for sure. But no, for the most part the flu viruses we get or we suffer from are pretty different from the low path ones are in birds. We might both have two legs but luckily, well, I shouldn’t say luckily, but the viruses that circulate in humans are pretty well adapted for us. We can transmit them to each other, one of us might get infected with the bird virus off chance, but there our ability then to pass that on is kind of nil. So there’s definitely some distinct differences from the ones that the viruses we might contract and suffer from them, then those that are out in the wild birds out there, which is good. They’ve evolved kind of into separate little niches or little groups amongst people and then amongst birds, so I think that’s a good thing for sure.

Ramsey Russell: Has you all’s research shown – we talked about poultry versus wild birds and I had a note here, I wondered if any species, I’m thinking waterfowl, but it could be any species, do they seem to be more acceptable or prone to contracting the highly pathogenic version than just low pathogenic? I mean, like right now a lot of pictures in social media appear to be snow geese. And it could be and now that this is getting into how it’s transmitted, it could be because of their population dynamic, it could be because of their behavior, they’re very gregarious animals, they’re feeding in big flocks, so it could be that they’re transmitting it real high and that’s why it’s just a bomb waiting to go off, versus birds trade around the smaller flocks and more scattered out across the horizon, it could be like that. But I’m just wondering, do you think or has your research shown that that could be a function of a species or would their life history be more related to why some waterfowl species seem to be showing a greater – This highly path starts to be moving through their population at a greater speed than normal, that makes sense?

The High Path vs. Low Path Debate

Do they seem to be more acceptable or prone to contracting the highly pathogenic version than just low pathogenic.

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, it does. And I think the short answer is yes and yes, you brought up some great point. So currently, I think that the count of wild bird species in which we’ve – not we, I’m sorry, but the high path virus has been detected in this recent outbreak is pretty close to 40, which is kind of crazy. So it’s not just waterfowl, it’s not just shorebirds, we talked about the bald eagles, vultures, wading birds, different species of gulls, snow geese for sure getting pretty hard through the middle of the country there. Something else we have to think about is, our ability to detect it, you look out across a field of hundreds of thousands of snow geese and you see a bunch acting woozy that’s going to give some people reason to pause and calling to their state wildlife or natural resource agency and report it. Other species are less visible, maybe when they’re affected or when they die, we might be missing and we being the collective, we of all the groups out there looking for this virus, we might be missing it. So a lot of our early detection, at least it came through our group were from Florida, so we’re thinking lots of people, lots of really interesting species that the people have eyes on and got a lot of detections out of that state. But again, it’s super populated, especially in the areas from which these reports are coming, so I’m thinking about huge expanses of land where birds could be succumbing to the virus or acting drunk and woozy and being preyed upon, those are going to be harder to get our finger on or get our hands on to test. But definitely that the way these birds move, how they interact with each other and with other species, how dense they are, if birds sort of act and sort of more single individuals out there, they’re less likely to come in contact with others and less likely to pick the virus up. But if there’s hundreds of thousands of birds in a small space that virus could take off pretty good, which I think is kind of happening with snow geese. And coolness is the wrong word, I can’t let my love for viruses show too much here. But early on snow geese down here farther south are being affected and then these birds are moving now through the northern part of our country, more snow geese are being detected. So, the way they move, how quick they move, all those things are going to impact the trajectory of this virus for sure, that was a long winded answer to my initial yes, yes but your questions are really spot on, Ramsey.

Are Certain Waterfowl Habitats More Conducive to the Spread of the Bird Flu?

Water really as you mentioned is typically a really key part of this, the key part of the way the virus is transmitted amongst birds. 

Ramsey Russell: I get lucky every now and again. I can see where because of the digestive tract and fecal matter that aquatic habitats would – I mean, boy just puts it in a solution and the whole wetland becomes a cootie spreader, but is it a function? I mean, do certain habitats are they more conducive to the spread? And what about habitat conditions in terms of quality? I mean, have you seen any differences within aquatic habitats that may make them less super spreader?

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, gosh great questions. Yeah. Water really as you mentioned is typically a really key part of this, the key part of the way the virus is transmitted amongst birds. And our lab has done and trying to do a lot of work kind of trying to get at those questions, right? So we will bring viruses into the lab, will put them in water, I mean, not necessarily representative of what’s out there in nature, but put them in water here in the lab, change some of the conditions and see how long they last, how long we call it kind of persistence, how long they can stay viable, stay alive in that. But yeah, water definitely is a key part of at least what we know about how flu moves through and amongst these different species. Water that’s really acidic or kind of acidic tends to beat the virus up pretty quickly.

Ramsey Russell: Like a lot of tannic acid or something.

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, tannic acid tends to kind of knock the virus out pretty quick and I am in no way saying go dump a bunch of acid in water bodies to clear this up. But highly acid solutions tend to kind of to break it up. These viruses at least don’t tend to do too well as it really warm, so as water bodies warm up that might play a role and kind of their ability to stay viable and be able to be transmitted, but there’s so many factors and all the other parts of the water body, all the insects and the algal colonies that are in there and all the different invertebrates and all that kind of stuff make it super complicated. How do grasses and those types of plants and things that are in water bodies, do they have any role in this? It’s really tricky to tease apart. Waters that are kind of have some tannic acid in them tend to have viruses that don’t persist quite so long.

Ramsey Russell: Wow. Moving on, what about management implications? Like, for example, I saw it suggested, I just read a headline about don’t put out bird feeders along those same lines in the waterfowl world, there’s a lot of duck banding going on now and then later this fall up in Canada and you bait, you put out feed and well, there’s been suggestions that we don’t do that, well, how the heck are you going to get your hands on these birds to band them, to monitor them, to do some studies, to swab them? But what are some other management implications that you can think of, that you all have discussed to slow this thing down?

Rebecca Powelson: That’s this banding and the baiting for banding question has been a big one come up so much and the jury is out, like you said, we got to get our hands on these birds to band them, to know how they move for all kinds of different reasons. For our interest, of course, it’s how are these viruses moving?

Ramsey Russell: It’s kind of catch 22.

Rebecca Powelson: It really is, Ramsey and kind of the best way to put it, but studying those movements are so important and if there’s virus in those species, we want to know it. So you got to get your hands on the birds to swab them to be able to say yes or no, they’ve got the virus or other virus. I don’t think we know enough yet to know if sort of concentration of birds in a small space with baiting will increase the transmission amongst them, it seems like kind of intuitive if it would, why you put more birds in a small space, one or two or a few of them have it, they’re probably going to spread it. But still those banding operations are really so critical to understanding these birds and years of miss data are definitely big holes that we’ll never be able to go back in and fill up. And then we think about go back to shore birds, because I know a little bit more about those. But the situations where we’re catching shore birds in the spring those birds are just all balled up in mass, feeding up on horseshoe crabs and other good things, so we’re catching those birds but not necessarily artificially increasing their concentrations. How much does the habitat matter, you mentioned about different water bodies and all those parts, we don’t know, are there ways you can ate a little less frequently and still get the answers. Down your way, we’ve been trying to help out our partners at Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries and they’ll band some birds early on, get some swabs and try to get them back to us here at the lab to screen right away. So at least we can say, at least in the small number, yea or nay, proceed cautiously, we don’t find the virus yet or hey, guys and girls there’s something out there you might want to tighten up the baiting a little bit. So it’s a hard answer and gosh, there’s going to be as we get more and more information, we’re going to be able to hopefully better answer these sorts of questions, but it’s definitely balancing the virus versus the need to have these birds in hand to understand them for a whole range of reasons, for sure.

What Can Hunters or Government Agencies Do to Contain or Mitigate the Spread Of High Path?

Ramsey Russell: I overheard a conversation, there were 3 states in the Mississippi Flyway that had not yet detected and I really wasn’t sure if they were saying bird flu or high path. And I’m just assuming that if there’s 3 states, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana that haven’t detected one, it’s not because we don’t have it, it may just be because of our management or monitoring activities. Would that be why? Because I’m leading to the question right now, it’s pretty much everywhere in the United States and Canada, right?

Rebecca Powelson: I think, yeah that’s pretty safe to say. I think I did a quick count today, I think 30 states came in through Canada, seemingly worked its way down the east coast and now it’s sort of headed west and now it’s kind of moving up through the Midwest, snow geese and these other species move on detections in Colorado I think so. I mean, yeah, it’s kind of taken off like gangbusters.

Ramsey Russell: Does that mean the dozen states or so in the United States that don’t have it, just haven’t gone out and sampled enough or sample at all or?

Rebecca Powelson: Oh, but yeah, back to your first of the 3 kind of ones in the Mississippi that are still not detected, you know better than anyone, these birds don’t follow these strict state or county lines right, they’re moving left and right up and down as they migrate and they’re not just staying put in Texas and not interacting with birds in other states. So, I think, it could well be that birds in that state aren’t positive for it, but I think that’s probably unlikely. It’s probably just numbers of birds that have been able to be sampled and resource limitations in terms of personnel and hands that have been able to get on birds. Birds are dying or sick in spaces where there’s just not a lot of human eyeballs on them to detect it, so I feel pretty good that it’s not a good time to lift poultry biosecurity roles in Mississippi or Louisiana or Arkansas or even Texas, which I think is yet to have a positive bird, because I think we feel pretty confident it’s there, we just haven’t detected it yet.

Ramsey Russell: I see. What can hunters or government agencies do to contain or mitigate the spread of high path, anything? Are we powerless?

Rebecca Powelson: I think early on those of us who have been kind of watching this were really hopeful that we’d have a few detections here and there, it would sort of, I love this stupid joke, poop out that’s what birds tends to do –

Ramsey Russell: Crap out, yeah.

Rebecca Powelson: Crap out, which is sort of what happened in 2014, 2015, I think they were maybe just shy of 100 detections in wild birds kind of started the west coast moved across, poultry got hit real hard but wild birds, it kind of crapped out. But quickly we realized that now this thing is here, at this point its mid-April, it’s been in North America now for almost 4 months. I think the number of a species is affected that this sort of real marked drunken woozy looking birds out there in the landscape. There’s evidence that the virus is kind of getting mixed up with some of those – we talked earlier about the blue and red kind of looking viruses this virus is starting to mix up with the normal, call them kind of good viruses that are out there and that changes it. It might poop out as migration continues and these birds get north and spread out a little bit. But I feel like we’re sort of becoming resigned to the fact that it’s kind of here and may be here to stay, which is kind of what’s happened in Europe already for the last number of years. But kind of get your question, I think gosh, your listeners out there know these birds and love these birds, know them better than me for sure. And I think just really being in touch with waterfowl biologists there’s people who are out there all day, every day kind of doing the work to keep eyes on these populations, yeah, it’s a good question and I wish I could say yes, we can mitigate it, yes, we can stop it.

Ramsey Russell: A lot of volunteers showed up to duck band and when we got to the truck before we left that farm, we sprayed our waiter, sprayed our gear and I don’t know what, I just know it’s something called Enviro one shot, I’m guessing it was just – at least that’s what we used to use, that’s what a lot of these taxidermists used to cootie proof the bird hides under USDA approve. And it’s got about a foot and a half long scientific name but I know it’s trade name Enviro one shot. I mean, is that something you can see coming down the pipe? Might these agencies be saying that folks like myself that travel and go to different wetlands around the country, we should have something like this that we can spray and decontaminate before we move on to another wetland? Can you see the scenario where that might happen, if that’s a suggestion?

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah. Gosh, that’s a great question. I don’t know. And there are ramifications of the stuff is pretty icky. I’m sure you’ve probably smelled or gotten some up your nostrils you’ve been spraying it and it’s a pesticide essentially or I don’t know if there would be sort of a regulation or requirement to do that sort of thorough cleaning. I mean, we’re out banding and working upwards and tables, we definitely disinfect them, like you just mentioned and clean them up so we’re not moving them from site to site. I don’t know what sort of regulations will come out of this.

Ramsey Russell: I just wondered if it had been suggested yet. I mean, I thought it was very proactive that they thought to do that. And it certainly wasn’t on my radar, and I just got to wondering, as I was driving back to the hotel, I wonder if it’s something that will be suggested of duck hunters is that we – I mean, like, it’s totally different problem but there’s an agricultural pest going through Canada, I think it’s called clubroot right now and a lot of farmers won’t let you come on to their property unless you’ve cleaned your truck or done something. They don’t want any bit of that in their fields and this would be a way to kind of contain something like this that’s so violent in wetlands. And I just wonder if it’s hitting that fever pitch yet. We’re seeing a lot in the news but I just wondered out loud it’s not worth beating up. One of the things I heard just in a conversation, a lot of people I’m talking to now it comes up in conversation bird flu, never came up in conversation back when. But we’re talking about poultry earlier and go to a Las Vegas casino and look at the number of eggs coming out in just that one casino in just 5 minutes, you’re sitting in line and just –

Rebecca Powelson: I was wondering where you’re going with that one.

Ramsey Russell: Wild ass guest extrapolating and there are billions upon billions of eggs being served to Americans daily. Metric tons of chicken meat and turkey meat hitting American tables or fast food drive through daily, just tons and tons. It’s a bazillion dollars, trillion dollar whatever industry in America. And somewhere along the conversation, somebody just said, probably what duck hunters might ought to worry about more than it killing off all the beloved mallards and blue wings and Canada geese would be, if this does get out of hand and start impacting a trillion dollar or whatever the poultry industry is in America, it’s a bunch and it’s necessary. Wow. What if they were to exert some form of legislative control to, hey, look, get these freaking wild birds the heck away from us, we’ve got to continue, that’s kind of sobering to hear somebody think that out loud that and that’s why I was asking earlier, could it cross over just what is the relation between poultry economics and wild birds? Because that could be a very driving force on how stranger things have happened that wild bird populations being steered by a bazillion dollar commercial industry.

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, definitely. And the bazillion part is a spot on there, I think. Yeah, I mean, these viruses that we know wild birds have and are carrying can get into poultry, I think again, I pull this up real quick this morning but I think something like 24 million domestic birds have died or been depopulated because of this virus already. Yeah, but as to the regulation piece, I don’t know, Ramsey, I hope that we can continue to look at wild birds as incredibly important in their own and work to protect them and conserve them. And but as for those sorts of regulations, I don’t know and how do you keep wild birds from flying enmasse as they’re migrating across poultry fields or poultry holdings? I can’t put up big nets around those facilities and hopefully we can find a way to sort of co-exist with this. I mean, double fingers crossed this fire’s does poop out, it plays out and it goes back on under the radar for a while –

Ramsey Russell: But it can come back. That’s one thing we’ve learned about diseases is it can come back. It gets beneath the surface and it ain’t gone, it’s like this little army recalculating and re-strategizing for how they can spread again when they come back.

Rebecca Powelson: Yeah, you are so spot on and it goes underground kind of reinvigorates, we turn our back on it or get kind of complacent and then bam it sorts of hits us in the face which might say kind of happen in this case.

Could This Impact Wild Waterfowl Populations?

So unfortunately, the answer is, we just don’t know but that’s why it’s so important to keep studying these birds and studying influenza and doing research about it.

Ramsey Russell: Have some of your conversations, because I know you work with a lot of federal agencies and funding research things of that nature. And have there been any discussions that could this, and this is a question I’ve heard asked, could this impact wild waterfowl populations? Could it be deleterious to a bunch of ducks out there in the sky? I mean, could it evolve to where it just wiped out too many birds? And could it or has there been any talk or worried that it might?

Rebecca Powelson: There definitely has been talk about it, yeah, and definitely worry and again, we don’t know, avian mortality can be really hard to quantify, we do the best we can with band returns and all that sort of great information coming in from awesome waterfowl biologists and observations made by hunters and everyone out there seeing these birds all day, every day and denominators are really tricky to estimate how many birds are out there. How many of those birds have succumbed to this virus? Again, it’s really tricky. We don’t know what’s necessarily driving mortality in this. We mentioned that some birds, some species they might be infected but not be symptomatic and might just carry on just fine, that’s going to change based on the season based on where they’re located, it might be differences across different flyways just based on what these birds see throughout their shorter or long lives and how that affects their ability to get infected later or with something different. So unfortunately, the answer is, we just don’t know but that’s why it’s so important to keep studying these birds and studying influenza and doing research about it. So we can try to get our minds and our arms around it because how many tens of thousands of species are out there and avian species out there in the world and hopefully this is not devastating to all the ones we’re most interested in here waterfowl and shorebirds.

Knowledge Is Power

…I think just remaining observant we can reach out to our state natural resource and wildlife organizations, if you start seeing funky things happening in certain species…

Ramsey Russell: I hope you’re right. Mark Twain said, that worrying was like paying taxes you didn’t know. But last question Becky, when should we be worried? When should I be worried? Right now, I’m not worried, especially after a highly informative conversation with someone like yourself, knowledge is power. Now, I’ve got a lot of questions answered, my imagination is not running rampant, I’m not worried. When should I worry?

Rebecca Powelson: I don’t know, that’s another great question. I think just always having these things in the back of our mind. We know what happened the last 2, 2.5 years with the virus we won’t mention, the before times denial that the ways we sort of think about disease and pathogens and viruses and I think we just keep it on our radar. You’ve asked such awesome questions and it sounds like you’ve heard and have been part of great conversations with hunters and the volunteers who help all these banding efforts and people are thinking about it which I think is good, I think just remaining observant we can reach out to our state natural resource and wildlife organizations, if you start seeing funky things happening in certain species, I think a lot of them probably have spots on their websites to report dead birds or sick birds and well, on our end, keep getting out there and getting the answers we can and try to keep having conversations and acknowledge that as scientists, we don’t know everything, we might not know anything in some cases. But we need to talk to people who know the birds who are out there hunting them and caring so much for them to really try to get the whole picture. I think it’s prudent to always be a little worried, I’m worried about my taxes this year, so there’s that. And I guess if this continues to kind of get into poultry and really devastate that market that might be time to start worrying a little. If it does get into humans or start to get transmitted amongst humans, then that sort of adds another layer on. But I think just approaching this with – let’s say, some cautious optimism. This is a complicated system, there’s all kinds of things we don’t know that that might be actually helping to protect the birds out there and just be observant, be alert, be aware and keep fighting the good fight for all these birds out there.

Ramsey Russell: Amen. That’s what we hunters do is fight the fight for birds. That’s why we say we hunters are conservationists. Folks, you all have been listening to Dr. Rebecca Powelson who is with the South-Eastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Georgia. Becky, thank you very much for shedding a lot of light on this topic. I feel much better, thank you very much for your time.

Rebecca Powelson: You got it, Ramsey. It was such a pleasure to talk with you today.

Ramsey Russell: And folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.


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