For the Birds Radio Program: Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza

Original Air Date: April 18, 2022

Laura’s researched as much as she can about this year’s outbreak of a dangerous variant of bird flu. She wrote a lot about it on her blog at

Duration: 6′26″


In the past week, I’ve been inundated with questions about whether people should close down their feeders because of bird flu. The best information we have about which wild bird species are testing positive and where this is happening is on the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, website, but sadly, this provides a woefully incomplete set of anecdotes, not systematically collected data. No agencies are funding tests on songbirds for avian flu while, as always, there is plenty of funding for testing game birds and poultry. A full 20 percent of the wild birds that tested positive are Mallards, and the vast majority of the rest are also waterfowl and birds that closely associate with waterfowl such as Sanderlings, pelicans, and a Great Blue Heron. Variants of bird flu attack birds every year, and domesticated poultry and wild waterfowl are usually the most affected.

But this year’s strain, called HPAI for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, has also killed hawks and owls, and at least one Blue Jay in Nova Scotia and s crow somewhere in Minnesota. Many raptors are large and conspicuous, and when someone finds one sick or injured, they often take it to a rehab facility—those usually do testing. Right now, many other wildlife rehab facilities aren’t taking sick songbirds—when a highly contagious avian disease is found in one bird, it’s extremely difficult to prevent it from spreading to birds recovering from injuries.

Many people wonder why we aren’t testing birds the way we did during the initial outbreak of West Nile virus in America, when people were encouraged to bring in dead Blue Jays and crows for testing. But that was to protect people, not birds. Crows and Blue Jays were so vulnerable to that mosquito-borne disease that health departments could anticipate when the disease would first hit humans in an area when those conspicuous birds were found dead. As soon as human cases became widespread, funded agencies no longer bothered testing birds.

If we find a sick or dead bird in our own yard, the only way I know to find out if it had bird flu is to take it to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in St. Paul and to pay for the testing ourselves. Every spring songbirds die from salmonella, botulism, and other diseases. Lethargic birds may be sick, but some may have struck windows or been attacked by predators. Feathers cover injuries so effectively that even experienced rehabbers often have to look closely at a bird in hand to know whether it’s sick or injured. In a year like this when so much media focus is on bird flu, it’s maddening to me that there is absolutely no funding to test songbirds to find out where exactly bird flu is appearing so people won’t panic.

Last week the Raptor Center in St. Paul issued a statement saying how hard it is to work out the science of this outbreak: “With minimal viral surveillance being done with songbirds, it is hard to measure the risk of transmission from songbirds to other birds,” and “Because the science is unclear on the role of songbirds in this current H5N1 outbreak, one consideration is to not encourage birds to gather together at places such as bird feeders or bird baths. These are places where things like viruses could easily be exchanged between individuals.”

During irruption years like this, wherever redpolls happen to be in April when most natural food sources are depleted, they always gather in large flocks, and often gravitate to backyards, not just for feeders but to pick through gardens in search of last year’s leftover seeds. I had at least a thousand in my yard a week ago, and there are still hundreds today, Easter Sunday. I’ve taken in my platform feeders, and re-raked below them, but the birds are still here, picking through the areas along the fence where Fox Sparrows, juncos, and the first Song and American Tree Sparrows are scratching through dead leaves searching for seeds, and scratching through my neighbors’ native plant gardens.

Until Friday afternoon, April 15, I was planning to keep my feeders going until the redpolls had moved on. But then I heard that a Minnesota crow that had tested positive and learned that NO testing on songbirds is or will be happening, much less any kind of systematic sampling of dead and dying birds, making it impossible to know how much at risk our birds are. A few times this spring I’ve taken photos of bazillions of redpolls crowding into my feeders or filling my shrubs. But I’ve taken orders of magnitude more photos of individual redpolls, with their varied plumage and sparkling eyes. Not one of them is expendable. I wrote a very long blog post providing an overview of the diseases birds are vulnerable to every spring, why this year’s avian flu outbreak is much more dangerous than most years, and what measures I’m taking in my own yard. It’s at