Out of Bounds

Flu Pandemic Kills Montana Birds

The disease has spread from domestic fowl to humans who have worked closely with domestic flocks

By Rob Breeding

I spent a year teaching at MSU-Billings. That campus was quite the lively place for wildlife. 

The Billings Canal that runs through campus is a haven for waterfowl. Mule deer are also frequent visitors. There are more than a few muleys making a living in that part of town. We’re not talking Helena or Cody, Wyo., levels of urban deer, but it’s common to see them stotting off toward the rimrocks on the north side of town.

The most common semi-wild species on the MSUB campus, at least when I was there, were turkeys. Flocks that range across campus look like wild turkeys, but I learned this week the birds are actually feral crosses between Merriam’s and domestic birds. 

I learned that because those birds are in the news. Unfortunately, several dead turkeys were found in the neighborhood west of the campus. A resident found one dead in his yard and assumed it had been hit by a car. When he found another, he alerted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 

FWP game wardens searched the neighborhood and found seven more. Three were sent to the lab for testing, and it turned out the turkeys had died from avian influenza.

The Centers for Disease Control announced in January a confirmed case of avian flu in a wild American wigeon in South Carolina. It was the first case of the virus in wild birds in the United States since 2016.

Avian flu has been detected in wild birds in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. The cases include snow and Canada geese. In Wyoming a turkey vulture succumbed to the disease. The flu doesn’t appear to be widely fatal in wild birds, but wild birds can spread it to domestic flocks. With the spring waterfowl migration underway, that seems to be what’s happening. 

Unfortunately, more than 40 species of wild birds have been confirmed infected with the disease. Most of the cases are confined to waterfowl, birds that prey on waterfowl, or in the case of that turkey vulture, birds that scavenge dead waterfowl.

The presence of the disease in wild turkeys means spring hunters should be extra careful. It’s unclear if the disease can be spread from wild bird to a hunter dressing out a carcass. In the absence of definitive evidence it is transmissible, hunters are advised to avoid killing any birds that appear weak or sickly. And hunters should probably break out their leftover PPE in case they do fill their tag. Wearing an N95 mask and protective gloves, and well as washing up carefully after dressing out a bird, are precautions worth taking, just to be safe.

The disease has spread from domestic fowl to humans who have worked closely with domestic flocks. A nasal swab from one man in Colorado tested positive for avian flu, but it’s unclear if he was actually infected. He is being treated with antivirals and seems largely asymptomatic, according to a story in The Denver Post. 

The case is connected to a commercial poultry operation in Colorado. That flock has been destroyed.

The avian flu is deadly to domestic flocks. In March, an egg factory in Iowa killed 5.3 million laying hens in response to an outbreak. The case drew international attention because many of the birds were killed by shutting off ventilation to the barns that housed the chickens, and allowing the temperature to rise above 104 degrees, which is lethal to the birds.

It sounds like a horrible way to go.

The disease could threaten Montana’s egg producing industry. Many of those producers are on Hutterite colonies and supply eggs to the popular brand, Wilcox, as well as Costco.

I hope this avian bird flu epidemic doesn’t result in mass casualties in wild birds, or domestic flocks for that matter. I’m fond of those semi-wild college turkeys. 

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.