‘There’s no treatment’: Anchorage bird rescue faces avian influenza

Bird TLC veterinarian Dr. Karen Higgs opens a bird flu testing kit in the center’s garage. Staff set up a tent away from other birds where they can examine those with bird flu symptoms. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

The Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage is one of a few bird rehabilitation centers in the state still accepting birds as the avian flu circulates.

Now, along with eagles with broken wings and orphaned baby ducks, the center — often called Bird TLC — is also getting birds infected with the highly pathogenic virus.

Staff have set up a tent in the garage where they take birds that arrive with symptoms — anything from respiratory problems to severe neurological symptoms, like seizures. Some eagles have arrived with such bad tremors they’re unable to stand.

“When they’re that far along in the disease, there’s no treatment,” said Dr. Karen Higgs. “So we provide humane euthanasia for them.”

This strain of bird flu is extremely contagious and can spread from bird to bird through saliva or feces. Staff and volunteers at Bird TLC change their shoes and clothes constantly and wash them with bleach. They’ve placed tarps over the tops of cages to protect their birds from wild birds flying overhead. Higgs met with volunteers on Zoom to explain the new protocol.

“It has taken what we thought would be a fun summer and turned it into quite a challenge,” Higgs said.

Bird TLC has had a group of ducklings, an adult Canada goose and a bald eagle from Anchorage test positive for bird flu. They’ve also been sent eagles from Dutch Harbor and Valdez.

“But it takes about two weeks for us to get test results, so we don’t know they’re positive until they’re gone,” Higgs said.

Higgs said, thanks to their protocols, they haven’t had any spread of bird flu within the center. She said the fact that the first cases were detected in the Lower 48 gave them time to prepare. Several other centers in the state — like the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka — temporarily stopped bird rescue and rehabilitation altogether as the bird flu spread.

Bird TLC in Anchorage has put strict cleaning protocols in place to prevent the spread of bird flu. “We’re going through a lot of gloves,” said Dr. Karen Higgs. (Katie Anastas/Alaska Public Media)

With the last major bird flu outbreak in 2014-2015, chickens and turkeys were hit the hardest. But this year, the new strain is also affecting eagles, geese, ducks and other wild birds.

“This strain of this virus is very different, in the fact that it’s having very significant mortality in wild birds,” said state veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach. “We haven’t seen that in the past,” 

He said out of more than 210 dead birds the state has tested for bird flu, a quarter of them have tested positive.

This outbreak also could last longer than the 2014-2015 one did. Gerlach said, that time, officials had stopped detecting cases by early July. Hot weather likely helped.

But the fact that Alaska has wild birds testing positive could keep the flu spreading longer.

“This state is colder and wetter than states in the Lower 48,” Gerlach said. “So will we see the virus leave or will we see it continue to circulate in the bird populations here through the summer? Because the big concern then is then, in the fall, when those birds fly south, will they be reintroducing this virus back into resident bird populations?”

Gerlach said information from the public will be key to understanding bird flu as it continues to spread. People who see sick or injured birds can call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s hotline at 866-527-3358.

“Their hotline has just been ringing off the hook,” Gerlach said. “Normally they’d just have one person — now they have several people answering calls on there.”

Higgs, at Bird TLC, said the widespread use of the hotline may have some unexpected benefits. She said they’ve had around 40 fewer birds brought in this spring than last spring. She hopes, maybe, people are seeking more advice before trying to help a bird that might not need it.

“I think everybody, hopefully, gains an appreciation for seeing the wild birds out there, and people are watching them more closely,” she said. “But it’s been really hard. It’s hard on our volunteers, it’s hard on us, to see these birds so sick.”

Higgs said, as long as it’s safe for the other birds in their care, Bird TLC will keep taking in sick birds and providing more data to the state.

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleWhat do high oil prices mean for Alaska’s economy? We asked an economist.
Next articleTalk of Alaska: Food security for urban and rural Alaskans amid rising prices and fewer fish