Avian flu: Don’t fear the flocks
It’s November, which means that the snow geese are pouring
into Oregon’s Klamath Basin in the hundreds of thousands.
The sight of the undulating flocks, snow white against slate
blue storm clouds, is unspeakably beautiful.
These are tundra geese, passing through en route to winter
quarters in California’s Central Valley. They have come
all the way from arctic Canada, from Alaska, and perhaps a
few even from Ostrov Vrangelya, in the Russian Far East. That
is, from Asia, from the homeland of avian flu.
The news has been full of reports about avian flu and the
possibility that this disease could become a deadly global
epidemic. Increasingly, those reports have highlighted the
possible role of wild birds in spreading avian flu along their
migration routes. For years, I have looked forward to arrival
of the great waterfowl flocks every fall. As the time approached
this November, I found that anticipation was tinged with a
trace of fear. So I decided to review the facts about avian
flu and migratory birds.
Although many mild strains of avian flu occur in wild birds,
especially waterfowl, the deadly varieties are thought to
arise in domestic poultry flocks, where crowded conditions
are ideal for their spread. The particular avian flu virus
that is the center of all the current concern is called H5N1.
This highly pathogenic strain was never recorded in wild birds
before it appeared in poultry flocks in Southeast Asia. Since
its appearance, H5N1 has killed uncounted thousands of wild
birds as well as millions of domestic chickens and ducks.
So far, about 120 people -- all in Southeast Asia -- have
been infected with H5N1, over 60 of whom have died. While
this form of avian flu is a serious disease if it is acquired,
it does not spread easily to humans, even those working closely
with infected poultry. It is not the current strain that terrifies
public heath officials: It is the possibility that this virus
could mutate into a form that is highly infectious to, and
between, humans. Such mutations have occurred in the past,
most notoriously in the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed
40-50 million people worldwide.
But it’s important to emphasize that this deadly transformation
is only a possibility; there is nothing inevitable about it.
The H5N1 virus has now spread outside of Southeast Asia, to
China, Russia, Romania and Turkey. Most of these cases are
explained by trade in infected poultry. In a few instances,
however, it appears that wild birds are carrying the virus
along their migratory routes. It’s easy to miss that
the ‘spread" being discussed in media reports is
from wild birds to poultry, not to people. There is not a
single case of human infection with H5N1 through contact with
Nevertheless, the news that wild birds may carry the virus
has led to some panicked reactions in Asia and the Middle
East, including proposals to drain wetlands used by migratory
waterfowl, and calls to kill (or ‘cull") wild birds
in an effort to contain the virus.
This would actually make the situation worse by dispersing
infected individuals and stressing healthy birds, increasing
their susceptibility to disease. This view is shared by the
World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization,
the World Organization for Animal Health, and many other public
health and environmental groups. These experts agree that
the only effective containment strategy for H5N1 is to house
poultry flocks in isolation from wild birds and infected water
sources, and to conduct swift and complete culls of infected
poultry flocks in the event of an outbreak.
H5N1 has not yet been reported from North America. Since
the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has sampled
more than 10,000 migratory waterfowl crossing the Bering Sea
from Asia to Alaska, but has not found a single bird carrying
the H5N1 virus. Government agencies are now seeking $5 million
over the next three years to expand virus testing to birds
along their migratory routes in the lower 48 states beginning
next spring. This is a prudent step that deserves our full
For me and millions of others, the observation of wild birds
provides a blessed escape from the worries of the world. Avian
flu is now certainly among those worries, but that should
not diminish our enjoyment, or our protection, of these beautiful
Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers
on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org).
He is a biologist who lives and writes in Ashland, Oregon.
NWF teaches how to garden for wildlife
The National Wildlife Federation has announced that the
property of the Messiers, in Rio Rancho, is now recognized
as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat site. This achievement
contributes to the organization’s goal of certifying
seventy thousand sites by its seventieth anniversary, in 2006.
The Messier property now attracts a variety of birds, butterflies,
and other wildlife while helping to protect the local environment.
With the help of NWF, many habitat enthusiasts have turned
their backyards into enticing wildlife refuges.
NWF began the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program in 1973
and has since certified over fifty-five thousand habitats
nationwide. The majority of these sites represent the hard
work and commitment of individuals and families providing
habitat near their homes, but NWF has also certified more
than twenty-three hundred schools and hundreds of business
and community sites. Certified habitats can also be found
everywhere from post offices, hospitals and places of worship
to community parks and municipal facilities. The size of an
average habitat is between one-third and one-half acre, although
certified sites range from urban balconies to thousand-acre
Any habitat enthusiast can create a backyard habitat and
learn the rewards of “gardening for wildlife.”
The program teaches the importance of environmental stewardship
by providing basic guidelines for making landscapes more hospitable
to wildlife. Habitat restoration is critical in urban and
suburban settings where commercial and residential development
encroach on natural wildlife areas. Changing landscapes to
attract more wildlife enhances the environment’s quality
by improving the air, soil, and water throughout the community.
This effort promotes commonsense conservation by reducing
or eliminating the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation
Habitats can also produce financial rewards for homeowners.
Realtors will promote the certified status of homes for sale
because they see it as an added selling feature. It’s
an attractive element to many potential home buyers looking
to share their landscape with Mother Nature. Potential homeowners
who are attracted to a house with a certified habitat are
also more likely to maintain the habitat once they take ownership
and continue to nurture the local wildlife after the original
creators move on.
For further information, visit: www.nwf.org.