Not just chickens: In Ontario, bird flu has killed bald eagles, Canada geese and young red foxes

The deadly bird flu that is plaguing the Canadian poultry industry is also cutting down an unusual number of wild birds and has even jumped to mammals, killing a few young foxes near St. Marys Ont. killed, according to wildlife experts.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said as of Thursday at least 68 poultry farms across the country have been affected by the virus, killing an estimated 1.7 million birds. The worst affected provinces are Alberta, followed by Ontario, each with 23 farms affected.

Wildlife experts say that avian influenza usually only affects waterfowl, but this strain, also called highly pathogenic avian influenza or HPAI, has affected a wide variety of wild birds, including waterfowl, corvids (such as crows and blue jays), gulls and birds of prey.

However, the most surprising victims to date have been a pair of juvenile red foxes that recently died of bird flu near St. Marys.

Arrival HPAI variant ‘regarding’

“These foxes ate the uncooked meat of infected animals,” said Brian Stevens, a wildlife pathologist at the University of Guelph.

Stevens performs necropsies on wildlife dying under unusual circumstances in Ontario and Nunavut for the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

One of the most surprising victims of the HPAI strain to date were two Red Fox kits similar to the ones pictured here. The two animals ate raw meat contaminated with the virus near St Marys, Ont. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

“So far we’ve only seen it in the kits. These are only five to six week old kits and I don’t know yet if it’s affected the adults as well, so that’s something we’re keeping an eye on.”

Stevens said the HPAI strain was first discovered in the wild in Ontario in mid-March and the number of victims is increasing. By early May, he had detected the virus 55 times in wild animals, a three to fourfold increase from what he would normally see in his caseload.

“The variant that’s out there now affects a lot of wildlife, which we don’t normally see. So the fact that it jumps [to foxes] and causing serious illness and death to Canada geese and a number of different raptor species is of concern.”

That concern is one of the reasons some wildlife rescue groups in Ontario — including the Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Mount Brydges — have stopped taking in sick or dying birds. Brian Salt, the group’s founder, said he doesn’t want to risk introducing the highly pathogenic virus into his surgery or his neighbors’ surgeries.

‘Like a burning fuse in a powder keg’

“We’re like a burning fuse in a powder keg,” he said of his wildlife center’s proximity to dozens of poultry farms in southwestern Ontario in the Strathroy-Caradoc area.

Not just chickens: In Ontario, bird flu has killed bald eagles, Canada geese and young red foxes
The HPAI strain has had devastating effects on the poultry industry on both sides of the Atlantic. In North America it has killed an estimated 36 million birds, while in Europe 12 million birds have died in France alone. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

“This virus is devastating to the poultry industry. We could pose a major threat to the businesses here and we don’t want to do that.”

Salt said that although his facility has stopped recording wild birds this year, there are still a number of native birds of prey that act as educational aids for public speaking engagements. He said staff are now required to wear full personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, when handling the birds of prey to prevent them from getting sick.

“We just can’t afford to lose them,” he said of the trained birds, some of which he’s had for more than 15 years.

Salt said his center normally takes in 75 birds a year, but this year has had to decline all requests for help to mitigate the risks.

“It’s devastating for a lot of people because they might have a litter of babies that need medical attention and we just have to say no. It’s painful on both sides of the phone.”

We could be a big threat to the companies here and we don’t want to do that.– Brian Salt, Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

It’s only going to get more painful, according to bird experts, who predict the first wave of diseases will likely peak with the peak of spring migration later this month. After that, the virus is expected to maintain a low profile until wild birds start migrating south this fall.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the threat to humans is low, but people are advised not to handle sick or dying wildlife.

Hunters are advised to wear disposable gloves and follow proper guidelines for handling game birds or other wildlife.

In terms of how long this bird flu epidemic will last, experts aren’t sure. But given that the same species hit Europe a year ago and still seems to affect commercial and wild birds, the virus could stay with us for a while.

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