Public Media for Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Migratory birds arriving in Alaska this year may bring avian flu with them

An osprey sits atop its nest on a Bethel power pole in summer 2021.
Danny Nelson
An osprey sits atop its nest on a Bethel power pole in summer 2021.

Concerns about avian flu are increasing as the spring migration to Alaska from the lower 48 and Asia gets underway. Although it poses no serious risk to people, the highly infectious H5N1 virus strain has been detected in wild birds in dozens of states, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service hasn't detected it in Alaska yet this year.

Bob Gerlach is Alaska’s State Veterinarian. “It has a particularly high virulence or pathogenicity for both wild birds as well as domestic,” he said. In states like Colorado, thousands of domestic chickens had to be euthanized after the virus ripped through a poultry facility in recent weeks.

“Other avian influenza viruses seem to focus more on hard impacts on domestic poultry,” said Gerlach. “ But this, we’re seeing fairly large numbers of wild birds being affected,“ he said.

Although the virus can’t spread to humans, Gerlach said that anyone harvesting wild birds this year should be careful.

“You should wear disposable latex gloves while handling and cleaning them, and then follow really good sanitation procedures for washing and cleaning your hands after handling it,” said Gerlach. He also said that people handling game birds should not eat, drink, or smoke while doing so, but that the meat is still edible. “Make sure you cook that game really thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees [Fahrenheit],” said Gerlach.

The virus can persist for close to three weeks in surface waters, like lakes. Those primarily in the central coastal zone, including near Nelson Island and Hooper Bay, are known hotspots. There are several agencies monitoring birds for the virus. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is not doing any preventative testing as migratory birds begin to arrive in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, they are asking for reports of sick and dead birds. USFWS runs a hotline for reporting; the number is 1-866-527-3358.

Emily Schwing is a long-time Alaska-based reporter.