Wildlife experts are worried after “hundreds” of dead cormorants have washed ashore on Martha’s Vineyard.
There could be many causes, but the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game fears the deaths could be the result of an outbreak of a highly contagious strain of avian flu release, according to a June 22 press press.
The agency advises the public not to touch or remove sick or dead birds along the coast. The flu has been ravaging both wild birds and commercial poultry in Europe, forcing over 16 million birds to be culled in France in 2021. According to the European Commission, a new epidemic season started in October 2021 with cases mostly along the coast. In Scotland on the Shetland Islands up to 80% of the Great Skua population may have died.
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The virus is in the US as well and Massachusetts has had 14 known cases. Hundreds of dead cormorants could represent a significant uptick.
“This is extremely dangerous to us as a small island,” Tisbury Animal Control said on its Facebook page. “Please inform your local ACO (animal control officer) if you find any dead birds. We have had hundreds of dead cormorants washing up all over the island.”
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The birds have been sent to Mass Fish and Wildlife for testing.
“Do not touch them. Keep your dogs on leashes if on beaches so they do not get contaminated,” Tisbury advises.
“We haven’t seen much of that here,” said Stephanie Ellis, executive director of Wild Care in Eastham. “There’s a very large die-off of cormorants down a lot of the coast to Virginia but we haven’t done any but There is definitely a mortality event with cormorants and also great shearwaters along the coast.”
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On June 1, the avian flu strain was detected in Georgia in backyard chickens, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The disease has also been recently found in Oregon, Washington and Oklahoma. In total, there have been 1,611 positive tests in 42 states. The most positive tests have been in North Dakota (249).
According to the USDA, there hasn’t been a positive test in Massachusetts since April 15, when a sanderling from Barnstable tested positive. On March 16, eight Barnstable sanderlings tested positive, along with a hawk and turkey vulture. Some of those birds came from the Birdsey Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable.
“We’ve seen a variety of species but have not had a positive cormorant yet,” said Zak Mertz at the center. “If you go to the USDA website they list all the positive cases.”
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Like Ellis, Mertz sends any suspect birds to Tufts University veterinarians for testing and if they have a positive the bird is shipped to the state for confirmation.
“Unfortunately this year has been a hard year at both hospitals,” Metz said.
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The New England Wildlife Center also operates an animal hospital in Weymouth.
“We’re taking in an extremely high volume of patients, over 200 on Cape Cod,” he said. “Weymouth has a high volume as well. They’re not taking birds now because they also handle domestic poultry.”
Any bird that’s sick or injured gets care in Barnstable but new birds are kept in isolation.
“We’re in full PPE (personal protective equipment) and are disinfecting 10 to 15 times a day,” Mertz said. “That’s made the job really complicated. It’s so contagious across species. That’s why so late in the outbreak we’re still taking precautions.”
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It’s the busy season as well.
“There’s a lot of seabird activity this year. We share everything with Mass Wildlife and our federal partners,” Mertz said. “We’ve had quite a few positives, as of now five or six different species including a snowy owl, a great horned owl, a gull, a swan, sanderlings, mostly scavenging species.”
That’s added a lot of time and stress to the job of caring for wild birds and it’s been the case for some time.
The flush of dead cormorants is alarming, according to Stephanie Ellis at Wild Care in Eastham
“This year avian flu was detected in Massachusetts in February,” Ellis recalled.” The first case we got was when two Canada geese tested positive. We had been feeling hopeful that avian flu cases were dying back. Several weeks ago a northern gannet tested positive but that was one out of 50 so we were feeling hopeful.” Ellis said.
She is still hopeful, but the flush of dead cormorants is alarming.
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“The Cape Wildlife Center has received over 30 shearwaters (that number is now 40) and I understand some did test some for avian flu,” Ellis said. “I’m not sure what’s going on (with the cormorants) starvation, unavailable food sources. I’m hoping we get results that shed light on how we should respond.”
She noted a couple of years ago cormorants were hit by Newcastle virus.
“We’re at extreme levels of biosecurity we’re following because of avian flu,” Ellis said. “If a bird exhibits symptoms we’re required to humanely euthanize it. If it is asymptomatic for flu, it goes into quarantine and we send a swab to a lab. We are working with Tufts and they test birds for us. They are great, we’re so grateful for that service. ”
Not all birds are equally at risk.
“It is highly transmissible through waterfowl, also shorebirds, gulls, so gregarious species that are drinking the same water – also in raptors that feed on the carcasses of birds with influenza. There is a low risk for songbirds,” Ellis said.
“This is a huge concern of the USDA,” Ellis noted. Poultry farmers have to cull entire flocks if avian flu is detected.
An extra layer of biosecurity on top of a busy season
As with the Cape Wildlife Center, staffers at Wild Care have to take extra precautions — which slows down work with all the animals.
“This has added a whole layer for us of extra biosecurity on top of a busy season,” Ellis sighed.” “There was not any concern of humans contacting avian flu until recently when a worker culling poultry picked up influenza. It’s an especially challenging season with the addition of this virus.”
It has been worse in Europe.
“This new strain of avian influenza (HPAI — highly pathogenic avian influenza) is hitting bird colonies very hard and we could be looking at a major shift in bird populations that may take years to recover from,” according to the Tisbury Facebook post.
Tisbury animal control officials did not respond to a request for comment.
If you find a dead or sick bird don’t touch it. Call Wild Care at 508-240-2255 or the Cape Wildlife Center at 508-362-0111. Report the incident to the state at mass.gov/forms/reportbirds.
“We’ve been asking people to call us to make sure they’re using appropriate personal protective gear, wearing gloves before handling birds,” Ellis said.