Bird flu’s heartbreaking toll

Outdoor Living

STRICKEN A listless local heron with signs of avian influenza. Approaching it was the wrong thing to do – all contact with sick birds should be avoided.

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

While walking one of our nearly dried up rivers (which has since become abundantly recharged) we came across the grey heron pictured above.
While these birds are normally shy and will take to the air at the least perceived threat, this individual appeared completely unperturbed at our incursion into its territory. What could be the problem? We herded it into a corner and picked it up to look for a tangle of fishing line around its feet or any evidence of injury. There was none.
The bird was exceptionally light as if it hadn’t been feeding properly for some time. The crop felt empty and those long legs hung listlessly while we examined the broad and normally powerful wings.
There came a moment when fire returned to the birds eyes, when the long, sinuous neck snaked forward with remarkable speed and that formidable sabre-like bill rattled in the face of my friend. Herons are not to be trifled with. But what could be the problem?
Even herons must die at some time. The average life span of these birds is a mere five years. I thought of the small heronry on the lake island close to home. With three active nests producing a total of six juveniles in a good year, six birds must perish between one season and the next if the population is only to remain stable.
Our bird sank back into a state of depression, with its head nestled into a hunch of shoulder. It regarded us tiredly, as if the poor thing had had enough of life. When we set it down it gave itself a shake and a ruffle of feathers, then slowly shuffled away. A long line of mucus fell from its beak, and then we knew.
Bird flu has been very much in the news lately. Highly Pathogenic (disease causing) Avian Influenza is rampant throughout parts of the European Union. At the time of writing, over 160 cases have been found poultry farms in the United Kingdom, resulting in the wasteful cull of over 3 million birds.
Among the wild bird population, dozens of species of water-based birds, ranging from skuas to swans, from geese to gannets, have fallen in nearly 2,000 recorded cases in that country alone.
So far we appear to have escaped the worst of the current H5N1 outbreak, but that is likely about to change, for it is only now that those species which come here for the winter are beginning to arrive. There are sure to be infected birds among those incoming migrants.
This latest episode of disease is coming at a bad time. Perhaps we all saw the headlines regarding the decline of Irish birds: 25 percent of Irish species are in serious decline, with a shameful fall in numbers of 50 percent or more in the last 25 years. A further 37 percent have suffered a so-called moderate population decline of between 25 and 50 percent. Only one in three of our wild bird species are able to reproduce properly. It is beyond disappointing. And now they have Avian Flu to cope with.
As has been stressed, H5N1 is highly contagious as well as fatal for the majority of infected birds. There have even been cases where the disease has passed to humans, which is why we are encouraged to avoid contact with sick birds. It is easy to overlook such advice, as happened with our poorly heron.
Many will be wondering if it is still safe or sensible to feed garden birds at this time. There presently appears to be little illness among songbirds, although this may change. Waterbirds, wildfowl and waders are most easily affected, as the places they frequent are often densely populated and the water they share acts as a reservoir for the disease.
It would seem prudent to keep an eye on the news and act accordingly. Poultry keepers would likely be keen to avoid as all contact between their flocks and the wild bird population, if such is possible. We shall feed our garden birds for the time being, remaining alert for any symptoms that become manifest. Birds that are listless or sitting around with their feathers puffed out, or any drooling or dribbling will be a cause for concern.
The Birdwatch Ireland website promises up-to-date information on the current situation, and also carries a link to the Department of Agriculture, by means of which we can report our concerns.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.