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Avian flu has been spreading among wild birds in Virginia for the past year

A red-tailed hawk
Logan Wallace
Virginia Tech
A red-tailed hawk

A second case of avian influenza H5N1 has been detected in Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley, according to agricultural officials. This is the second time the highly contagious strain of the virus has made it onto a commercial turkey farm in Virginia. But for the past year state wildlife officials have also seen vultures, eagles and hawks die from this strain of avian flu.

Normally, wild birds are carriers of avian influenza, with few symptoms. “The difference that we’re seeing this year in Virginia and through the other states is that the black vultures are dying, which is kind of unusual,” said Gary Costanzo is with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. Their agency has seen hundreds of black vultures die from this strain of bird flu in the past year, as well as Canadian geese one hawk, and three bald eagles. Most have been in the northern part of Virginia. One of the eagles was outside Roanoke. The numbers of deaths among wild birds is low, and Costanzo says they aren’t concerned about significant population loss among vultures or eagles, but the virus does pose a large risks to domestic birds.

That’s because wild birds, especially ducks, can transmit the virus to domestic chickens and turkeys.

“Ducks are carriers of the virus, and normally it doesn’t kill the birds,” said Costanzo. “And so they can carry the virus and pass it on to other birds. And that’s the concern. Especially poultry.”

Six backyard flocks in Virginia have seen cases in the past year.

This virus attacks the nervous system. “A lot of times they don’t have very good control of their nerves,” said Costanzo. “And their heads will roll around and they just won’t be acting right.”

Costanzo said infected birds normally die within a day or two after symptoms appear.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the risk to human health to be low. One case last year documented one poultry to human transmission. To be on the safe side, the CDC recommends cooking eggs or poultry until it reaches an internal temperature of 165˚F, which kills bacteria and viruses, including avian influenza.

Agricultural and wildlife officials are taking steps to reduce the spread of avian flu. They can also test dead birds for the virus, so if you see unexplained deaths, report it to your local DWR or USDA office.