The new pandemic is killing hundreds of millions of birds, and some species could be completely lost
The form of the flu virus that affected the feathered population is the H5N1 virus. Infected birds spread this flu through saliva, contact and droppings. When a person gets enough droplets of this flu—often by getting it on their hands and spreading it to their mouth or eyes—they can easily become infected with the bird-borne strain. A large number of people were infected this year through this route from bird to man.
Fortunately, there is currently no version of the current bird flu strain known to spread from person to person. However, it is quite possible for this to happen if the virus picks up the necessary mutations, as happened with the SARS and SARS-CoV-2 viruses when moving from animal hosts.
Limiting the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the current bird flu, which could cause another pandemic, is best achieved by limiting the number of people infected through the bird-to-human route. And this is best achieved by avoiding contact with infected birds. Which birds could be infected? Either of these, although the course of the disease in birds is generally so rapid that there is a short period in which domestic poultry is infected but shows no obvious symptoms (such as dying). In any case, any interaction with a number of wild or domestic birds at this time should be treated as entering a “hot zone”, complete with a mask, gloves and post-contact cleaning procedures.
While the conditions in the “hot houses” of caged poultry weaken these animals and make them highly susceptible to any infection, farms that are trying to be better stewards of their animals are also at risk. Chickens, turkeys and ducks allowed to roam “free range” were wiped out when flocks of wild geese flew in to share their food or water.
Some people have become so concerned about the possibility of bird flu that they have taken down their bird feeders. However, for the most part, songbirds, woodpeckers and other birds that feed frequently are considered to be of little concern. Mainly waterfowl and shorebirds are considered likely vectors. However, wash your hands after handling the feeder or other surfaces frequented by wild birds.
Mother Jones currently has a heartbreaking article on how this flu can affect birds of all species.
In the summer of 2022, gannets and sailors on remote Scottish islands began to behave strangely. They walked in circles like they were drunk. Their heads swelled. They trailed their limp wings along their sides, their feathers grazing the ground. At the time when they should have reproduced and raised new life, they were dying. Scientists and bird watchers were on the front lines of the ecological disaster. More than two-thirds of the world’s gannets and great cormorants — birds that migrate across the Atlantic Ocean from eastern North America to western Europe — are feared to have been lost.
That’s two thirds of some ecologically vital and aesthetically magnificent species that were lost to one disease last year.
Just as the virus can jump from domestic birds to humans, it can also jump between infected wild birds and the species that hunt them. This includes not only birds like eagles and hawks, but also mammals like foxes. Other species, such as pelicans and seals, which live in areas where these seabirds congregate in large numbers, are also infected.
All this is tragic, but also very unusual. Influenza is endemic among birds. It generally only makes them mildly ill. This is true for the H5N1 strain, as well as other forms of influenza A. One of the big reasons why the term “bird flu” comes up as an issue every few years is that birds don’t die from flu infection. Instead, they get the bird equivalent of a runny nose and then hang around, creating a reservoir of potential infection that can jump to humans.
Only this time, this particular variant of H5N1 (H5N1-HPAI-class 126.96.36.199b) it has proven incredibly lethal to birds of all species. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, more than 50 million domestic birds have been killed by bird flu so far this year. It’s everything from chickens to emus [Note: The woman in that emu story is highly problematic for a number of reasons, the emu in the story turned out to not have avian flu, and sleeping with a bird you think does have avian flu is a colossally bad idea]. France euthanized another 10 million in an effort to control the disease there. Similar destruction of birds is carried out in many countries, but so far the disease is raging.
The number of wild birds is unknown.
So far, the 2022 bird flu season has been spectacularly awful. This is not the avian equivalent of COVID-19. For many species this is the black death.
Why is it so awful? Partly because it bounces back and forth between wild and domestic populations. Wild populations provide free transportation. Meanwhile, when a group of birds is destroyed by disease, what do the farmers do? They bring in thousands more birds that are more or less genetically identical to the ones that just died, ensuring that a new and susceptible population is ready for new viruses to develop.
Then there is another factor:
By infecting migratory seabirds at the right time and in the right place, clade 188.8.131.52b was able to make a journey that no known HPAI had made before: crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Historically, HPAI influenza in North America either emerged locally or crossed the Pacific. However, in December 2021, the virus was found in domestic birds in St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, probably caught from infected seabirds flying over Iceland, Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic. The latest data from the US Department of Agriculture shows that the ear of corn has since spread across the United States to the west coast of Alaska. With flocks moving up and down the Atlantic Flyway, the invisible highway that birds use to migrate from North America to the Caribbean, Central America and South America, the virus has already migrated far south. At the end of November 2022, about 14,000 seabirds, including pelicans and blue-legged terns, died along the coast of Peru. Each body was thrown into a black garbage bag.
In recent decades, bird populations have already come under enormous pressure due to pollution, hunting and habitat loss. For some species of birds, 2022 will take on special significance because it will be their last year on earth.
Why did Democrats do so surprisingly well in midterms? Turns out they ran really good campaigns, as strategist Josh Wolf told us in this week’s episode The Downballot. This means they have defined their opponents aggressively, spent efficiently and stayed the course despite endless guesswork in the press. Wolf gives us an inside look at exactly how these factors played out in the Arizona governor’s race, one of the most important Democratic victories of the year. He also sheds light on an unsexy but crucial aspect of any campaign: how to manage a multimillion-dollar budget for an enterprise designed to run to zero by Election Day.