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2 avian flu cases found at zoos, USDA reports

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OMAHA, Neb. — Two cases of bird flu have been confirmed in U.S. zoos, but officials said they won’t order widespread euthanasia of zoo birds the way they have on farms.

U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman Mike Stepien declined to release any details about the zoo cases, including which two zoos were involved.

Many zoos across the country have closed their aviaries and moved birds inside whenever possible to help protect them from avian influenza that officials believe is primarily being spread by the droppings of wild birds.

At many zoos, penguins might be the only birds visitors can see because they are generally kept inside behind glass where they are shielded from the virus.

Nearly 27 million chickens and turkeys have been slaughtered in 26 states to limit the spread of bird flu during this year’s outbreak. Officials order entire flocks to be killed when the virus is found on farms.

Stepien said zoos work with state veterinary officials when the virus is found. But unlike farms, zoos are generally allowed to isolate and treat infected birds as long as they take precautions to protect the other birds in their collections.

Health officials emphasize that bird flu doesn’t jeopardize food safety because infected birds aren’t allowed into the food supply, and properly cooking meat and eggs to 165 degrees Fahrenheit will kill any viruses. The disease doesn’t represent any immediate public health threat, and no human cases have been found in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though the bird flu typically does not infect people, there have been some rare cases of human infection, according to the CDC.

The USDA said Saturday that new cases of bird flu were detected in a commercial chicken flock in Lancaster County, Pa., and a backyard flock in Utah County, Utah.

Farmers in the Midwest, where much of the nation’s egg and poultry supply is located, have been hit particularly hard.

This year’s outbreak is the worst one since 2015, when roughly 50 million chickens and turkeys were slaughtered because of the virus. Stepien said there were very few bird flu cases in captive wild birds in 2015 and none in large zoos, and no wild birds at zoos were euthanized that year.

BALD EAGLE DEATHS

Bird flu is also being blamed for the deaths of three bald eagles in Georgia.

The University of Georgia’s Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study said it confirmed the avian flu in the eagles Thursday.

It marks the first time the virus has been confirmed in the species in Georgia, officials said. Researchers first detected the disease in the dead eagles found in Chatham, Glynn and Liberty counties in March. Lab tests at the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, confirmed the results.

The infections of the bald eagles in Georgia are among several reported across the nation. Last month, two bald eagles in Vermont were found to be infected with avian influenza, state wildlife officials announced. North Carolina reported the death of a bald eagle in March.

Nationwide, federal officials have confirmed more than 660 cases of the avian flu in wild birds this year, including 11 cases in Georgia. Tens of millions of domestic birds have died from the disease or were euthanized to keep the virus from ravaging commercial flocks.

“We don’t know what the future holds, but worst-case scenario: The virus becomes established in our wild bird populations,” said David Stallknecht, director of the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study.

“If it is maintained in wild birds, it will continue to threaten wild bird and commercial poultry health,” he said. “With bird migration, it may even spread to Central America and South America.”

ILLINOIS CASES

Avian flu has also likely killed hundreds of double-crested cormorants nesting at Baker’s Lake near Barrington, Ill.

Wildlife biologist Chris Anchor said this is the largest outbreak of disease in wild birds that he’s seen in Cook County.

“I’ve never seen anything like this since I started working here 41 years ago,” said Anchor, of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. “Chances are this is happening in other places, and we’re not aware of it because no one is looking.”

In Illinois, officials closed Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge and Emiquon Preserve in west-central Illinois from March 16 to March 25 after a likely outbreak among migratory geese. According to the USDA, avian flu was detected in a handful of wild birds found dead in Will, Champaign and other Illinois counties in March.

The outbreak at Baker’s Lake, which is about 40 miles northwest of Chicago, appears to be the first large die-off of wild birds from the disease in Illinois, Anchor said. The state pathologist confirmed that seven double-crested cormorants discovered dead at the rookery tested positive for the avian flu, he said.

Anchor collected the birds a few days ago after wading into the lake near the rookery where he discovered hundreds dead, some of them floating among the cattails and vegetation.

Anchor cautioned the public to avoid getting near or touching wild birds that look sick or are dead, especially aquatic birds and birds of prey.

“The recent [flu] is very deadly,” said Michael Ward, senior ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. “If the bird gets it, it dies.”

That’s one reason many cormorants may have succumbed to the disease at Baker’s Lake. These birds are colonial nesters, breeding closely together, which makes transmission of the disease easy, Ward said.

“There’s always avian flu going around, but this highly pathogenic version of it doesn’t show up often,” he said. “It’s usually found with waterfowl in tight areas and can cause a mass mortality event.”

“It often burns itself out quickly,” Ward said, adding that he hopes that’s what will happen with the birds at Baker’s Lake.

Officials are remaining watchful because birds like cormorants are still migrating at this time of year and can carry it with them to different areas.

“Herons, egrets, cormorants all get together in these rookeries where the disease can spread rapidly,” Ward said.

Though the chances of humans getting avian flu are very rare, Ward said, “It’s something we’re more concerned about these days, given that covid [likely] jumped from wildlife to humans.”

Avian influenza spreads through direct, bird-to-bird contact. It can also spread to birds via contaminated surfaces and materials, including people’s clothing, shoes or hands, according to the USDA.

Anchor learned about the dead cormorants after being notified by Tom Regan of Barrington, who was watching birds at Baker’s Lake.

“I saw one dead bird and thought, ‘Oh, that’s not unusual with a big colony on the island.’ Then I see these others dying — about 10 or 20 — seeming to be writhing in pain,” Regan said.

“When you see a large percentage of a population of birds disappear, it’s very dramatic, and many people think it’s tragic,” Anchor said. “The birds become disoriented. They become uncoordinated. It’s part of nature.”

Reporting these sightings is important, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. If people encounter five or more dead wild waterfowl, water birds or raptors in one location, then they should contact their local wildlife expert.

Information for this article was contributed by Josh Funk and Jeff Marin of The Associated Press, by Akayla Gardner of Bloomberg News (TNS) and by Sheryl DeVore of The Chicago Tribune (TNS).

    A Magellan penguin rests in its enclosure earlier this month at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa. At many zoos, penguins might be the only birds that visitors can see because they are generally kept inside behind glass, shielded from an outbreak of avian influenza. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)