Joanne Sim from Coquitlam, B.C., set up her hummingbird feeder three years ago. She watches the “hummers” from the couch in her front room. Last winter during the cold snap, she brought the feeder in every night so the liquid didn’t freeze. The birds would be waiting for it the next morning when she put it out.
“They’re so fast, and very aggressive little guys,” Ms. Sim said, fondly. “I love how they eat and fly at the same time.”
Mrs. Sim and her husband also have a suet feeder for the other neighbourhood birds, and they grease the pole to make sure no enterprising squirrels can climb up and steal the loot.
This spring, however, Mrs. Sim is planning on taking down the feeder. She is worried about the dangers posed to her feathered friends by avian flu.
The strain spreading across Canada is the most transmissible and widest-ranging variant in recent memory, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The H5 strain has hit 1,372,400 birds in all provinces across the country, save Prince Edward Island. Alberta is the worst affected, with a total of 600,000 farmed birds dead or euthanized because of the disease.
“This is the first time we’ve seen avian influenza in Alberta,” said Maria Leslie, a member of the Alberta Poultry Industry Emergency Management Team. “Farmers are understandably concerned about the issue.”
According to Ms. Leslie, the industry is stepping up biosecurity, animal care and food security measures in an effort to quell the outbreak.
Wild birds are also dying from the virus. Between April 20 and 27, three snow geese and one Canada goose were found dead around Vanderhoof, B.C. Elsewhere in British Columbia, three dead bald eagles were found at Lac La Hache Provincial Park (just outside 100 Mile House), Bowen Island and Vancouver.
“This has been an unprecedented year globally for the avian flu,” said Mary-Jane Ireland, Canada’s Chief Veterinary Officer, in a statement.
The variant, which first appeared in Canada in December, likely arrived with migrating wild birds. It seems to have picked up speed around March, when a wild hawk was found dead outside Waterloo, Ont.
While the number of dead wild birds is not yet a source of concern (avian flu is not as deadly for wild birds as domesticated ones), there are still worries about the potential for mutation.
“If we’ve learned one thing from [the] COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that viruses mutate and create new variants and subvariants,” said Dr. Shayan Sharif, immunologist, avian pathologist and professor at the University of Guelph’s veterinary school. “The more chance they have for circulation in a population, the more chance they have to exchange their genetic material and mutate.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is therefore advising residents to periodically clean backyard feeders and baths, and that anyone who comes into contact with bird droppings thoroughly wash their hands with soap and warm water.
However, on Thursday, the BC SPCA asked the public to temporarily remove bird feeders and empty bird baths.
Mr. Sharif seconds this call. The feeders provide a space for different species of birds to congregate, he says, offering the virus exposure to more genetic material and therefore opportunity to mutate.
“Bird feeders would attract different species of birds. These species don’t usually meet one another in the environment and ecology.”
The virus sheds through nasal and oral cavities, specifically found in droppings. Mr. Sharif worries that the birds from the feeder could – through their droppings – infect other animals in backyards, such as backyard turkeys and chickens.
Addisen Limo is in Grade 7 and lives on Vancouver Island with her mother and 19 backyard chickens. She started raising chickens five years ago when she moved to Metchosin, a small rural community on the southern tip of the island, 30 minutes from Victoria.
“I’ve always wanted birds,” she said. “My favourite part is watching them and spending time with them. I like how they fight for different types of food and treats. I just like watching them running and roaming around.”
Both Addisen and her mother, Amber Limo, are worried about the avian flu, especially because they live right next door to a wild bird sanctuary. Addisen has therefore stopped holding her chickens. She changes her shoes before she enters the pen, and makes sure all their food and water is kept clean and away from wild birds. The chickens are also kept in a roofed pen, and are not permitted to roam the garden.
The family also took down their hummingbird feeder.
“We are taking action with it, I think it should be enough,” said Ms. Limo, who is unsure about when she will be able to let her chickens roam again.
Both she and Mr. Sharif are hopeful the outbreak will subside in a few months.
“Influenza viruses usually have a seasonal pattern,” Mr. Sharif said. “Usually, they go up and down and then they start subsiding.”
Still, viruses are unpredictable, he adds.
“We can never know when an outbreak is gonna end and how it is gonna end.”
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