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Public Health - Seattle & King County

Wild birds and avian flu

What kind of wild birds get avian flu?

Avian flu viruses have been found in many bird species, but are most common in shorebirds such as sandpipers and plovers and waterfowl such as ducks, swans, and geese. Influenza virus has been found in wild birds throughout the year, but waterfowl is the only group where it occurs year round. Birds that become infected with avian influenza viruses often show no symptoms or have only mild illnesses, but certain highly pathogenic strains can cause serious disease and death.

Are migratory birds spreading avian flu from country to country?

Migratory birds' role in spreading avian flu virus is not clear. It is known that the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 (the form capable of causing serious illness and death) has been found in wild birds. The pattern and timing of outbreaks in domestic poultry have not necessarily coincided with periods of major migratory movements or migratory routes.

Can I catch avian flu from a wild bird?

If an avian flu does come to our area it would be very unlikely, but not impossible, to catch avian flu from a wild bird. People most at risk would be those who handle sick or dead birds or hunters who process bird carcasses.

Even in the absence of avian flu, birds have other diseases that humans can catch so if you need to handle a wild bird, follow the advice for hunters (see next question).

Is there a special risk to hunters?

The risk of catching avian flu to wild bird hunters is low, but the risk is higher than to a person who does not hunt. The following prevention tips apply whether or not avian flu is found in the area because other diseases can be transmitted by handling wild game birds. These tips come from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

  • Do not harvest or handle wild birds that are obviously sick or found dead.
  • Wear rubber gloves while cleaning game or cleaning bird feeders.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke while cleaning game.
  • Wash hands with soap and water or alcohol wipes immediately after handling game or cleaning bird feeders.
  • Wash tools and work surfaces used to clean game birds with soap and water, then disinfect with a 10 percent solution of chlorine bleach.
  • Separate raw meat, and anything it touches, from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination.
  • Cook game birds thoroughly. The meat should reach an internal temperature of 165º F.
Should I stop feeding birds at the bird feeder?

Public Health does not recommend feeding wild birds in urban or suburban settings in general because bird feeders frequently attract rats or other rodents. If you do choose to feed the birds, be aware that you must regularly clean up bird droppings and spilled food, and clean bird feeders to prevent birds from spreading diseases to each other.

To protect your own health from diseases such as salmonella carried by birds, always wear rubber gloves when you touch bird droppings or clean feeders. At least once a month, submerse bird feeders in solution of 1 part bleach with 10 parts cool water for 3 minutes, rinse, and allow to air dry.

Never handle obviously sick birds and always wear rubber gloves or pick up dead birds using a shovel. With the shovel, double bag the bird in plastic and dispose in the garbage. Public Health is tracking bird deaths in King County to watch for both West Nile virus and avian flu. You are asked to report dead birds for West Nile virus tracking to the Washington State Department of Health. Die-offs of multiple wild water fowl should be reported to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) by calling 1-800-606-8768. If the bird deaths appear unusual, samples are sent to veterinary laboratories to test for diseases, including avian flu.

I have neighbors who feed wild birds. Is this a risk for avian flu and can Public Health stop them?

Bird feeding is not a risk for avian flu spread at this time and there are no regulations that would stop someone from feeding birds based on a concern about avian flu or other bird diseases. We do educate people to feed birds selectively using feeders that do not spill seeds because bird feeders often attract rats and other rodents. If rats are a problem on a property, we advise that bird feeders be removed. Visit Public Health’s rodent pages to learn more.