The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is seeking the public’s help in testing waterfowl and other wild birds for a type of avian influenza that has killed tens of thousands of chickens and domestic turkeys in British Columbia and has recently been detected in wild birds in Washington. An infected domestic guinea fowl has also been confirmed in Oregon.

Although the virus poses no apparent threat to human health, highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza can be deadly to domestic poultry and, rarely, wild birds.

State wildlife managers ask that anyone who sees a wild bird that is sick or dead call WDFW at +1.800.606.8768. They are particularly interested in waterfowl and birds such as eagles, hawks, falcons, ravens, and gulls that prey on them or scavenge their carcasses.

In addition, field staff from WDFW and two federal agencies will ask hunters' permission to collect samples from birds they have harvested to test for the disease in several counties. Those efforts will be focused in Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston and Clark counties.

"The sampling procedure takes less than a minute per bird, and will help us determine the prevalence of the disease in wild birds," said Don Kraege, WDFW waterfowl section manager. "Waterfowl are carriers of the disease, but often don't show symptoms. The primary risk is to domestic chickens and turkeys."

Kraege noted that WDFW tested more than 10,000 wild birds for bird flu viruses from 2005 to 2011, and found bird flu viruses in about 10 percent of all birds tested. None, however, were associated with any illnesses or mortality.

WDFW is part the state's multi-agency response to highly pathogenic H5 bird flu that also includes the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) the Washington Department of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Wildlife Health Center, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Canadian inspectors first confirmed the highly pathogenic H5N2 strain of avian influenza at two British Columbia poultry farms during the first week of December. Aware of that finding, WDFW had two birds - a gyrfalcon and northern pintail duck - found dead in Whatcom County tested for bird flu the following week.

The gyrfalcon, used for hunting and fed wild duck by its owner, was found to have a highly pathogenic H5N8 form of the virus. Another duck found dead at Wiser Lake was infected with H5N2, similar to the strain found in poultry in British Columbia.

On December 18, the USDA confirmed the presence of the H5N8 virus in guinea fowl and chickens in a backyard poultry flock in Winston, Oregon.

State and federal agriculture officials strongly recommend that poultry producers prevent contact between their birds and wild birds. Migratory waterbirds (ducks, geese, shorebirds) are now migrating southward from Alaska along the Pacific Flyway, making domestic birds especially susceptible to contracting the disease.

WDSA asks that anyone who spots sick or dead domestic poultry report their observations at +1.800.606.3056.

While it is extremely unlikely that hunters or people feeding wild birds could contract bird flu from wild birds, the following common-sense precautions are always 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 rubber 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.