Raptors are among the hardest hit
By Mike Lynch
An avid birder and hobby photographer, Tara Fuller regularly drives along the northwestern shoreline of Lake Champlain looking for raptors.
But in early December something else caught her eye. She noticed limp snow geese washing up on shore or lying dead on the ground.
Snow geese migrate through the Champlain region in the spring and fall and travel in the thousands. They can be found in farm fields or on the water, usually in the northern part of the lake.
“The lake looks like it has snow on it, there’s so many of them on it,” said Curtis Latremore, owner of Pine Ridge Farm in Chazy.
Over a week, Fuller saw about 30 dead snow geese, mostly in the Dunn Bay area north of Plattsburgh.
The dead birds were usually alone or in small groupings.
“The ones that were (alive) on shore, you’d go by the next day and they’d be dead,” Fuller said.” It’s heartbreaking when you see something like that.”
Tests performed on three of the birds by the state Department of Environmental Conservation determined they had died from avian flu, a highly contagious virus that has been killing birds and other mammals across the U.S. in recent years. It was first detected in November 2021 and then spread rapidly in March 2022. New York state’s first case was reported in Long Island in February 2022. It has since spread and was later found in the Adirondack Park.
Flu viruses occur naturally in waterfowl and shorebirds such as ducks, geese and gulls. They spread through feces and mucus.
What’s different is that more wild birds are dying than in past avian flu outbreaks, such as the one in 2014 and 2015.
“In the past, we haven’t seen strains that have killed wildlife to any great degree,” said Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist with Cornell University. “But this one, it does seem to be killing wild birds, and it’s killing a variety of species. So, we’re not really sure what that means yet.”
Avian flu has infected or caused the death of more than 58 million birds nationwide, including over 6,400 wild ones, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worldwide, this version of the flu has been around since at least the fall of 2020, when it started spreading across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The bird flu hasn’t hit New York or the Adirondacks as hard as some other places, like the Midwest. But it’s here and wildlife health specialists and agricultural agencies are keeping a close watch.
A sanderling from Long Island tested positive in February 2022, becoming the first of more than 300 wild flu-ridden birds identified statewide. And, as of late January, 9,802 poultry birds in New York had been infected, including one commercial chicken flock of 8,500 on Long Island. It’s also been found in 16 foxes statewide, two of them in St. Lawrence County.
Bald eagles impacted
Bird flu has killed loons, snow geese, crows, vultures, hawks, owls, various ducks, bald eagles and even an endangered spruce grouse in New York. Songbirds, which are common in the Adirondacks, can carry the disease, but they apparently haven’t been impacted as much as others.
More than 50 wild birds tested positive for the virus in the Adirondack region through late January. No poultry outbreaks were recorded.
But the wild bird number isn’t necessarily an accurate indicator of how many are infected because few are tested.
“I’m sure there’s many birds that are dying from it that we’re just not getting our hands on,” said state Department of Environmental wildlife biologist Kevin Hynes.
Eagles have drawn a lot of attention. Statewide, at least 30 bald eagles have died during the latest outbreak, including seven in and around the Blue Line and three in the park, according to DEC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Eagles and other birds of prey are susceptible to getting the disease because they feed on species such as mallards that carry and spread the disease.
“I’m definitely concerned about eagles, and it’s not just confined to New York,” Hynes said. “They’re seeing bald eagles (die) up and down the East Coast and also in the West. They’re also seeing the same thing in other states with vultures. It seems to be hitting them pretty hard.”
How much of an impact the deaths are having is hard to say, in part because estimating the bald eagle population number is difficult. Eagles have rebounded significantly since being endangered decades ago. The DEC found close to 400 occupied nests in 2021, including 33 in the Adirondacks.
“This is killing adult eagles, which is concerning, because then obviously that impacts the reproduction,” Schuler said. “Whether both (parents) are killed or one is killed, it can cause a nest failure.”
As a result, researchers plan to look at how the loss of eagles from avian flu might impact future generations, she said. Eagles can live for 20 to 30 years and usually produce one to three eggs per year. Not all eaglets survive. So, nest failures could be significant.
Peter Nye, who led the DEC’s endangered species program and helped reintroduce bald eagles to the state in the 1970s, said he’s “not super-worried” about the impact on eagles yet because the population is so big right now. His concern would rise if 30 to 40 nest failures resulted statewide per year.
One reason he thinks the bald eagle population may be OK is the birds generally don’t tend to gather other than sometimes in the winter when they are feeding.
“That self-protects the larger population,’’ Nye said.
But he said family units are vulnerable to spreading it among themselves, say if an adult brought its young an infected duck or passed on saliva.
Impact to farms
Wild birds are considered flu carriers and spreaders, but much of the attention regarding this outbreak has been on poultry. Even though there have been no recorded illnesses among commercial birds in the Adirondacks, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t impacted farmers because of the potential consequences.
If avian flu is found on a poultry farm, the USDA requires that a farmer’s entire flock be destroyed to control the spread of the ailment. That could be devastating to farmers who have already endured rising costs of feed, transportation and labor. It takes 4 to 6 months to raise chickens so they can lay eggs.
Latremore’s Pine Ridge Farm is an organic operation that has 60,000 free-range chickens for producing eggs in Chazy. He said he’s fortunate that there aren’t a lot of fields where large flocks of geese congregate nearby, but his operation still has strict biosecurity measures in place and his staff is on high alert due to the nationwide outbreak.
“Staff has to be even more diligent,” he said. “We wear separate clothes when we go into the barn, separate boots that never come out of the barns.”
During the warm-weather months, they use a booth to spray tires. Trucks and trailers from other farms are completely washed before entering the premises.
“It’s all because nobody really knows what’s going to be the one thing that’s going to help control it,” Latremore said.
Reber Rock Farm is a small operation in Essex that produces meat, including chicken, and delivers to customers throughout New York. Owner Nathan Henderson said the bird flu has been like COVID-19 in that consequences could potentially be severe.
“How COVID impacted me was the fear that it put into me and put into my family and put into my community, and it changed how we interacted,” he said. “I would say avian flu is similar.”
He said some biosecurity measures were already in place before avian flu, but workers are even more aware and stricter with the rules.
From spring to fall, his chickens feed in the pasture inside hoop houses, which are similar to greenhouses but moved around on a daily basis. This allows the birds to eat naturally and be protected from predators, such as eagles, hawks and foxes. It also results in manure distribution and keeps the flock isolated from wildlife and potential diseases.
“They’ve kind of got their own little world: the feed, the water, the ventilation,” Henderson said.
Stopping the spread
The Wild Center in Tupper Lake hadn’t found any cases of bird flu, as of late January, but like chicken farmers, it has influenced their daily operations.
Employees must regularly clean their shoes or boots with disinfectant when moving between areas inside the center. They also change clothes at work.
And museum curator Leah Valerio says those measures go beyond her job at the center. A falconer and wildlife rehabilitator, Valerio said those occupations have been affected.
She no longer takes in sick birds to rehabilitate for fear of passing on the disease at work, and she no longer takes her falcon hunting in the wild.
“A lot of falconers will hunt waterfowl with their falcons, and so a lot of people really weren’t out hunting this year with their birds,” she said.
That’s because falcons could feed on infected birds or animal carcasses.
What concerns Valerio and others is that many people expected the virus to fade last summer during the warmer months. Instead, the illnesses continued to be a major issue during the fall migration, killing snow geese and other birds. Now there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer on when it will end, and what the long-term impact will be.
“I think we’re going to be seeing this disease in our animal populations for some time to come, especially during migration season and spring and fall for birds, that’s when they’re moving around,” Valerio said.