‘Tens of thousands’ of bird flu cases in Florida now include sandhill cranes and white pelicans

Florida’s unprecedented outbreak of a highly infectious bird flu strain among wild birds has spread to two other iconic species: sandhill cranes and whooping pelicans, wildlife officials confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday.

The birds are the latest additions to a growing list of known species, including bald eagles and great horned owls, confirmed to have contracted highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI.

The fast-spreading virus is now confirmed in 35 counties and has circulated among 34 species of wild birds in Florida, the St. Petersburg-based Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said.

“We have probably lost tens of thousands of our native birds in the last year,” Institute spokeswoman Carly Jones said in a statement to the Times. “Although things don’t currently appear to be as dire as they were this time last year when the virus first arrived in Florida, we continue to see deaths in many bird species.”

A sandhill crane searches for food in a field near Lutz Lake Fern Road Monday in Odessa.  Bird flu has been confirmed for the first time in white pelicans and sandhill cranes.
A sandhill crane searches for food in a field near Lutz Lake Fern Road Monday in Odessa. Bird flu has been confirmed for the first time in white pelicans and sandhill cranes. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Biologists first detected the virus in January 2022 when Palm Beach County hunters turned in two ducks, freshly shot, for routine disease testing at a checkpoint organized by the Florida Department of Agriculture. The US pair of blue-winged teal ducks were the first two animals in the state to test positive.

The news of two new species infected this week underscores the growing reach of avian flu: Sandhill cranes, with their recognizable reddish heads and horn-like squawks, are a state-designated threatened species. White pelicans are winter visitors, traveling from as far away as western Canada.

Researchers at the University of Florida first reported the sandhill crane infection to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services earlier this month, Jones said. The bird was found on private property in Gainesville during the week of January 9.

In late November, two white pelicans were found off the coast of Cedar Key, Jones said. One was dead and the other was sick and was taken to a rehab center. The rehabilitator killed the bird in accordance with current protocols against bird flu. State wildlife officials received the official test results on December 27.

“Each of the white pelicans here in Florida have flown 2,500 miles to spend the winter in a safe place. And now they contract this deadly disease. It’s pretty sad,” said Ann Paul, president of the Tampa Audubon Society.

One year from the first infection

The epicenter of the outbreak first emerged along the Atlantic coast of Florida in early February, when hundreds of lesser scaup ducks, a common black-headed North American diving duck, began showing signs of neurological problems. But recently, black vulture cases have skyrocketed in Florida, Mark Cunningham, leader of the fish and wildlife health subsection of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told the Times in November.

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Infected birds can transmit the virus through saliva, nasal secretions and feces, according to the commission. An infected black vulture will often return to its nest before dying. Other vultures will then feed on the infected carcass, further spreading the disease, Cunningham said.

As of November, at least 21 backyard flocks in 11 Florida counties have been confirmed to have bird flu, according to state agriculture data provided by Madeline Brezin of the Florida Department of Agriculture. That includes two flocks in Hillsborough County and one in Pasco. The infected birds were mostly chickens, but there were also domestic ducks, geese, peacocks, and guineas.

No commercial poultry flocks in Florida have confirmed cases of bird flu, according to Scott Richardson, manager of the poultry veterinary program for the agriculture department’s animal industry division.

“To this day, there have been none in commercial flocks,” Richardson said by phone Tuesday. “Thanks god.”

The best way to prevent the spread of bird flu from wild populations to backyard flocks is to “limit your exposure,” Richardson said. That includes keeping them under cover, with protections like fences.

The wildlife commission also echoes this on a web page dedicated to the outbreak: “Do not allow wild birds to come into contact with domestic birds and do not keep bird feeders near domestic birds.” The backyard flock cases so far in Florida have come from infected wild birds, Richardson said.

American white pelicans, which migrate south in the winter months from northern Canada, display at Crescent Lake Park, where small numbers arrive each year.  The recent outbreak of bird flu was first detected in these birds on Sunday, January 22, 2023 in Saint Petersburg.
American white pelicans, which migrate south in the winter months from northern Canada, display at Crescent Lake Park, where small numbers arrive each year. The recent outbreak of bird flu was first detected in these birds on Sunday, January 22, 2023 in Saint Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

How to prevent bird flu

There is a “low risk” of bird flu spreading to humans, state wildlife experts say. In April, a human case was confirmed in Colorado after someone became infected by handling poultry suspected of carrying the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The person reported fatigue for several days before recovering.

The University of Florida announced in September that a bottlenose dolphin in Dixie County contracted bird flu in the first known case in North America. It likely came into contact with an infected bird along Florida’s Gulf Coast, according to the researchers.

Here are some ways to prevent bird flu, according to wildlife experts:

  • Clean your bird feeders and baths with a 10% bleach solution. That’s one part bleach mixed with nine parts water.
  • If you must handle a dead bird, follow how to dispose of it from state bird flu guidance
  • Keep bird feeders away from domestic birds
  • Report dead birds to the state

“We ask the public not to touch sick or dead birds unless necessary,” Jones said. “However, we strongly recommend that all sightings of dead birds be reported.”

The public can report sightings to the bird mortality database: If you see a dead bird, report it to https://app.myfwc.com/FWRI/AvianMortality/

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