Are Migratory Birds at Risk?
By Stephen Capra
The big news these days is the fear of Avian flu. President Bush has earmarked billions of dollars to make sure America is protected. Though a virulent form of the flu has yet to be found in the Western Hemisphere, some Americas are already panicking. Some people are no longer willing to hang their bird feeders for fear of transmitting disease. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently issued a press release letting people know it was safe to go bird watching.
The reality is that most birds (peregrine falcons, shorebirds, ducks, tundra swans, loons, long-billed dowitchers and terns) tend to migrate over large areas and if there is one central location for this migration, it is Alaska. This makes Alaska the logical entry point for the deadly strain of avian flu known as H5N1. If you have ever spent time in Alaska, traveled to Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge, the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge you would have witnessed the spectacle of millions of birds that come from many parts of the world converging in these massive refuges. Should the flu enter Alaska via Asian migratory birds and spread amongst the breeding populations, it will then be carried effectively worldwide. Another potential drop-off point might well be Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge or Bosque Del Apache here in New Mexico, as birds migrate down from the north.
While the large-scale risk to humans remains theoretical, the flu has already impacted bird species. In May, a single outbreak in China killed a tenth of the world’s bar-headed geese and last month the United Nations task force identified three dozen species of rare Eurasian birds at risk. Where the real problem comes in is the government and citizens knee-jerk reaction to confuse wild birds with the poultry production birds typical to Asia, that have been the source of this outbreak. There is concern that there will be an attempt at a mass culling of species and the destruction of habitat, under the guise of protecting public health. Stay tuned.