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Scientists believe they've found the first bird flu casualty in Southwestern Alaska this season

Editor's note: Laboratory testing has shown that the cackling goose in this story did not die from bird flu as reported. Additionally, a previous version of this story had an incorrect temperature recommendation for hunters who are cooking game. For an update on this specific case and bird flu trends in 2023, read this story.

Avian influenza is suspected in the death of a migratory cackling goose in Western Alaska.

“So it is here in the Yukon Delta again, 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. So we've had our first casualty detected,” said Bryan Daniels, lead waterfowl biologist at the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

As of June 1, laboratory testing was still underway and had not yet fully confirmed which variant of highly pathogenic avian influenza the migratory bird had. There are other possible detections this year, according to State Veterinarian Robert Gerlach.

Daniels advises hunters to cook their game to at least 165 degrees to kill any viruses that might be in the meat. He also wants to remind hunters to practice basic sanitary practices. This includes washing your hands after you handle the game, and no eating, smoking, or chewing until after you do so.

“From birds that may be affected. It is still safe to go catch birds this spring. 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 warned.

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, but we're about a week later than what we've seen in the last eight or nine years,” Daniels said.

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

Daniels is working with the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) to select a date for the 30-day closure that is mandated in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the taking; including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport; of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the 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 for 30 days and start rearing their young. And so the refuge works with AVCP, the Alaska Village Council Presidents here in Bethel, to set that date,” Daiels noted.

Daniels said that the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge talks to subsistence hunters and gatherers on the coast and throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) 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. 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," Daniels said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be conducting aerial bird surveys for population assessment for all species during the first week of June or up to a week and a half, according to Daniels.

“So you might be seeing some low flying aircraft across the Yukon Delta for those surveys,” Daniels warned.

For the birders in the Y-K Delta, Daniels said that there has been a considerable increase in the number of passerines and insectivores to watch out for. He has seen a lot of tree swallows and cliff swallows, as well as snipes and shorebirds.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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