Bird flu outbreak devastates UK seabird colonies

Is bird flu becoming more common?

While there have been two severe outbreaks within the space of a year, it is currently uncertain whether or not the virus is becoming more common.

Climate change has been suggested as having an impact by altering the migratory pattern of birds and spreading the virus between bird populations that haven’t come in contact before. However, other research suggests that rising global temperatures will have ‘very little effect on HPAI epidemiology’.

‘All seabirds have some type of influenza at some point in their life, and it’s not that uncommon,’ Alex explains. ‘This outbreak has become notable because of its large geographic spread and significant chick mortality. It’s not just seabirds which are being affected either, but also waterfowl, waders and other birds which live in close proximity to one another.’

‘However, it’s hard to say if HPAI is becoming more common, as we’ve not been monitoring seabird populations for long enough to know.’

Though numbers are currently under pressure, seabirds are capable of bouncing back from severe declines. Their populations often go through events known as wrecks, where large numbers of birds die at once from causes such as storms, a lack of food or algal blooms.

As a result, the decline in colonies affected by bird flu is not yet a threat to the wider survival of seabirds.

‘Seabirds have slow life histories, and can live for decades,’ Alex says. ‘Even though bird counts at colonies are declining, we’re not at a point where it will have a significant effect on populations.’

‘The empty space seen in images of colonies such as Bass Rock will be partly due to adult birds returning to the sea following the death of their chick. It’s safer at sea, and without a chick there is no longer a reason to remain on land.’

‘It doesn’t mean there will be large overall population declines.’

Research continues into the current outbreak, with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) testing carcasses to understand the spread of HPAI.

Anyone who finds a wild bird that appears to be sick or dead should under no circumstances touch it. Symptoms of infected birds include swollen heads, a lack of coordination and gasping for air.

Any bird that is suspected to be dying from, or by, bird flu should be reported to the Defra helpline as soon as possible on 03459 33 55 77.

Dead wild birds will generally be disposed of by the local authority or landowner, depending on where the carcass is found. If you are the landowner, advice is available from Defra.

To try and limit the spread of HPAI, the RSPB also recommends that anyone with a bird feeder should regularly clean it externally with a mild disinfectant, remove any old food, and space feeders apart as much as possible.

For more information, please visit the government’s website.

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