It’s been hard not to notice the thousands of birds making their way through the skies of Keizer in recent weeks.
But some haven’t made the full trip.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) confirmed that four dead cackling geese were picked up by staff from Staats Lake on Oct. 24.
Five more dead geese were in the water, and 10 that showed clinical signs of avian influenza (AI) — commonly referred to as bird flu. ODFW also picked up a live cackling goose from a Salem city park.
All tested positive for AI.
ODFW received reports of sick geese in the area for the rest of the week.
The following week, a wildlife control operator contracted by the HOA at Inland Shores removed more bird carcasses from Staats Lake on Nov. 3 and 6.
“Avian influenza is becoming more prevalent on the landscape in the Willamette Valley this fall,” Beth Quillian, the ODFW North Coast, North & South Willamette Watersheds Communications Coordinator, said in an email.
Avian influenza is a virus that infects birds’ respiratory and gastrointestinal tract. Like the common human flu, there are many different strains. Most are considered low pathogenic avian influenza, and infected birds have little to no signs.
There are strains that are high pathogenic avian influenza, like the H5N1 strain present this year. These carry a high mortality rate in poultry, 90-100% in chickens, typically in 48 hours, according to the CDC.
The USDA announced the first detection this year on Jan. 14. This was the first time since 2016 the H5N1 virus was detected in a wild bird in the United States.
The poultry industry tries to stay vigilant against AI outbreaks, but Oregon Department of Agriculture State Veterinarian Ryan Scholz worries about the smaller scale.
“My biggest concern is those people who have a couple chickens in their backyards,” Scholz said.
Scholz said most domesticated birds shouldn’t be susceptible, as they would rarely be around excrement from a sick bird, possibly tracked in on the bottom of a shoe.
Another common case of domesticated birds becoming infected is with domesticated ducks, typically with a pond on the property. Scholz said wild, infected ducks will land in the pond and expose the domesticated ones.
While there is some anecdotal evidence of isolated examples of the virus jumping to other wild animals. Scholz expressed worry for wild foxes specifically.
However, transfer is most often seen from wild water birds like ducks and geese to raptors like eagles and hawks.
Scholz said the only year that was as bad was in 2015, though he said this is not specifically a worse strain. In 2015, the problem started in the winter, built in the spring, and was gone by the summer, according to Scholz.
But not this year.
“It never stopped,” Scholz said.
Scholz expects more cases, and said with the high number of detections, it can be assumed there is a large number of birds carrying.
And this surge didn’t come out of nowhere.
Local bird expert and author Harry Fuller wrote a column for the Salem Reporter in September that said AI could be a threat to local birds through the winter.
“This year is particularly bad,” Fuller said.
Fuller stressed that the worse areas around Keizer will be the wet and marshy lands. If a bird dies in the water, the disease can spread through that water. If a bird dies in a dry field, unless the carcass is eaten, the disease had little chance to spread.
This is what was on Fuller’s mind when he wrote his piece in September.
“When all the geese and ducks get in here, as fall goes on and it starts to rain and bigger areas are underwater, this thing can spread everywhere,” Fuller said.
One bird that Fuller mentioned could be at risk are bald eagles. Any bird that is likely to associate with migrant birds is at risk.
But Fuller highlights the eagle because he said that this time of year, eagles are one of the top scavenger in the area.
Eagles have immunity to many of the diseases other birds can suffer from, but Fuller said the bald eagle is not immune to AI.
“Bald eagles have been found dead across Alaska, Canada, Washington state, I think there’s even been several here in Oregon,” Fuller said.
While the possibility of a spread to human hosts is rare, it is historically possible, with cases in Asia over the last few decades, according to Scholz.
Caution should be taken though when encountering a sick or potential sick bird.
The ODFW urges people to give distance when seeing a bird with possible signs of infection, and refrain from feeding ducks and geese.
If you must dispose of a bird carcass, the ODFW recommends you wear gloves, invert a garbage bag and use proper handwashing hygiene.
If you see multiple sick or dead birds, contact ODFW at (866) 968-2600.