Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka temporarily suspends bird rescues as concerns mount about bird flu

a person holds an eagle while another person looks at it
From the archive: Handler Hannah Blanke holds Zappa while Sheila Swanberg performs an exam. The eagle was treated at the Alaska Raptor Center after running into an electric line (Britainy Wright)

Alaska reported its first case of the highly pathogenic avian influenza in early May, furthering the spread of what is now an international bird flu outbreak.

In response to the rising number of cases, the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka has temporarily suspended its bird rescue and rehabilitation services.

“They’re saying [there’s a] 99% chance that raptors that get it will die,” says Jennifer Cedarleaf, the center’s avian director. “So we’re doing everything we can to protect them.”

Bird flu is spread through contact with saliva or feces of an infected bird. Cedarleaf said they’ve moved the eagles that live in the outdoor habitat into their cages, to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus. 

“Unfortunately, that means that they’re not on display for the public to see,” she said. “But at this point, we’re more concerned about the safety of our birds.”

Cedarleaf said, unlike COVID, there’s no rapid test for the bird flu. It can take up to two weeks to get the results from a sample. So far, no cases have been reported in Southeast, but Cedarleaf believes that the Alaska Raptor Center may be the only organization in the region that’s currently testing for the virus. So far they’ve tested around 10 birds. All results have come been negative. She said an eagle died in the Sitka National Historical Park earlier this week. They’re waiting on sample results, which she suspects could come back positive.

Cedarleaf said researchers are saying the virus doesn’t like warm weather, and she’s hopeful that cases will die down nationally once the summer hits. But Sitka’s summers aren’t really that warm.

“It likes cold, it likes water, you can’t kill it in the freezer. So once it gets warmer, they’re hoping it will die down,” said Cedarleaf. “And I keep asking them, ‘Well, what is warmer?’ Because we don’t get that warm. I mean, is 65 degrees warm enough? I don’t know. So I’m hoping that it will start to die down once a once we get into the 60s on a more regular basis.” 

She said she thinks that, at least for a while, Raptor Center staff will need to be on high alert. 

“It takes a lot of brain thought to remember to change your shoes before you go inside a building. To make sure you’re washing your hands constantly before you go from one bird to another bird,” Cedarleaf said. “It’s just like, I’m sure, very similar to what the medical profession was dealing with with COVID. You know, you don’t want to spread it any more than you possibly can… So, it’s hard.”

The center is still open for visitation. And while they’re not currently accepting outside birds, if you encounter a sick or injured bird, you can call their emergency phone line at 907-738-8662 for support.

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