Southwest Alaska confirms its first bird flu death of the season

a tree swallow
A tree swallow near Bethel (Courtesy Joe Joe Prince)

A cackling goose in Southwest Alaska has died from the bird flu. It’s the region’s first reported bird flu death of the season.

Bryan Daniels, lead waterfowl biologist at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, said the death of the migratory bird was discovered Thursday.

“We did find a bird that succumbed to avian influenza with all the normal signs of the neurological disorders, when they sat around and then next day being dead, looking like he’s just sleeping on a pond,” Daniels said.

Alaska officials have warned about the continued outbreak of the bird flu, especially as migratory birds return to the state. Alaska confirmed its first case of a highly pathogenic bird flu strain back in May 2022, as the fatal disease ripped across the country. It’s led to the death of millions of birds, and has killed other animals that feed on infected birds, including bears.

Daniels advises hunters to cook their game to at least 165 degrees to kill any viruses that might be in the meat. Hunters should also practice basic sanitary practices, including washing hands after handling game and not eating, smoking or chewing until they wash.

Hunters can also help limit exposure by being selective in the field.

“From birds that may be affected, it is still safe to go catch birds this spring,” Daniels said. “Just need to be cautious that some birds might be sick and not have any symptoms, show any symptoms. But if birds are showing symptoms, leave them be and don’t eat them.”

Daniels recently returned to Bethel after spending nine days studying the nesting of different waterfowl, primarily emperor geese and speckled eiders at one of the research camps out on the coast.

“And their timing is right on time for the historic mean from the 1980s until present of initiating, they’re now starting to lay eggs in the last week of May,” he said. “But we’re about a week later than what we’ve seen in the last eight or nine years.”

Daniels said that even though the river breakup was later than usual, birds are starting to nest, which means eggs will be laid soon.

Daniels is working with the Association of Village Council Presidents to select a date for the 30-day closure that is mandated in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. During the closure, the taking — including killing, capturing, selling, trading and transport — of protected migratory bird species is prohibited without prior authorization by the Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It’s meant to protect birds so they aren’t disturbed while they’re nesting so that they can incubate and hatch, they’re hatched, they’re young, for 30 days and start rearing their young,” he said.

Daniels said staff at the refuge talk to subsistence hunters and gatherers on the coast and throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to ensure that people are getting opportunities to collect eggs and catch birds prior to setting that date.

“But it’s a fine line to ensure that we protect the birds as well as providing the opportunity, so we work together to set that time period,” Daniels said. “And so I’m talking with them right now to set that now that we know when birds are laying and when they should start incubating their eggs — next week, probably.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated that this was the first bird flu death in the state for the season. It was the first in the region. It also misstated the recommended degree to cook meat to, it’s 165 degrees.

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