Mutated avian flu spreading in Bay Area is like COVID for birds – SFGATE

A female peregrine falcon, an endangered species that lives in the Bay Area, is seen under a freeway bridge in Marin County. Bay Area birds are at risk as avian influenza spreads in the region.
Local wildlife specialists are preparing for the worst as avian influenza, also known as bird flu, spreads in the Bay Area. The virus is highly contagious, has no cure and impacts species ranging from pigeons and poultry to owls and raptors. If it continues to spread, millions of Bay Area birds could die.
The virus was first detected in Northern California in July. “To date, there’s been 55 detections of [highly pathogenic avian influenza] in wild birds in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma counties,” Ken Paglia, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told SFGATE.
These initial cases are likely only the tip of the iceberg. “It is estimated that millions of birds have already perished as this virus has worked its way across the country,” WildCare’s Wildlife Hospital in San Rafael said in an email, and the same fate could befall the Bay Area.
The virus is unpredictable and could be “devastating” for birds, WildCare spokesperson Alison Hermance told SFGATE, but “because the Bay Area is smack in the middle of one of the four migratory flyways in North America, it is winter migration and we have massive numbers of raptors and waterfowl in the Bay Area, we are preparing for the worst. … There are horror stories from other wildlife care centers about how many birds have died from it.”
Bird flu can sicken and kill nearly any bird, and the Bay Area is home to eight endangered bird species, all of which could be at risk from the virus.
The Bay Area has seen bird flu outbreaks before — the most recent one occurred about seven years ago, Hermance said. This time, though, the virus has mutated and is much more contagious.
“It’s like going from flu to COVID,” Hermance told SFGATE. “Millions of birds are dying across the country from this strain, as opposed to a few hundred waterfowl in a particular area from previous virus strains.”  
That’s bad news for the Bay Area’s wild birds, especially because the new strain of bird flu is nearly 100% fatal to raptors, some of the region’s most threatened species. “Many different species of wild birds may be susceptible to infection, and many birds may die of infection, unlike previous outbreaks with different [highly pathogenic avian influenza] viruses,” Paglia said.
The virus could have devastating economic impacts on Bay Area farmers, too. 
Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, said “this strain of avian flu is virulent and deadly to turkeys, chickens and egg layers. We have lost up to 300,000 turkeys that had to be depopulated from the disease.”
Although farmers have kept the disease out of most flocks so far, Mattos said, “winter is coming, and this disease is spread primarily by flying birds.” The poultry industry’s biosecurity is thus on “high alert.”
Amateur Bay Area chicken keepers are worried about their flocks as well.
“I’ve taken biosecurity pretty seriously since I have over 30 birds in my mixed flock,” Kimberly Pelham, an amateur chicken keeper in the North Bay, told SFGATE. “I keep my runs covered to keep out hawks, wild birds and other critters. If any of my birds die unexpectedly, I’ve always taken them up to UC Davis for a necropsy.”
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According to the journal Science, previous bird flu outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest and Canada “killed an untold number of wild birds” and forced farmers to euthanize almost 33 million chickens and turkeys. A 2014 outbreak made farmers cull 50 million birds, racking up $3 billion in losses.
“I discourage wild birds from visiting and am putting up covered runs soon,” said Rebecca Fernandez, who keeps chickens in Oakland. “One of my friends has an acquaintance that had their whole flock put down by the state because of avian influenza. It’s good to take it seriously.”
Bird flu is considered low risk for humans, at least in its current form. According to the World Health Organization, about 450 people have died from bird flu since 2003. 
But as with any contagious virus, there’s always the possibility of a jump to humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says bird flu infections in humans remain rare, but the agency acknowledges that a “shift” could occur, in which the virus jumps to humans.
“While a ‘shift’ of this kind has not occurred in relation to avian influenza viruses,” the CDC says, “… It is also possible that the process of genetic reassortment could occur in a person who is co-infected with an avian influenza A virus and a human influenza A virus.” 
Such a genetic reassortment could yield viruses that are “more likely to result in sustained human-to-human transmission and have pandemic potential,” the CDC says.
To reduce that long-term human risk — and to keep birds safer in the short term — Bay Area residents can take several steps. Like many viruses, bird flu spreads via aerosols, bodily secretions and even the clothing and shoes of human handlers. Experts recommend changing clothes, especially shoes, after interacting with domestic birds and removing bird feeders and baths, especially if you have pet birds or keep backyard poultry.
Officials have also warned against feeding birds at public ponds and lakes.
As the virus continues to spread, small wildlife hospitals could quickly become overwhelmed. “Wildlife hospitals are all small nonprofits already reeling from COVID,” Hermance said. “An influx of birds requiring quarantine space is a major challenge, as is the mental and emotional toll on our staff and volunteers having to deal with sick and dying birds and making euthanasia decisions.”
If you see a wild bird that appears sick, call your local wildlife hospital before approaching it. Several Bay Area wildlife hospitals maintain 24/7 hotlines for people to report sick or injured wildlife. 
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m., Nov. 8, to remove a photo of an owl that is fortunately not endangered.