Many people are concerned about the 2022 avian flu or bird flu outbreak, which will affect domestic poultry, waterfowl, raptors and some shorebirds in the US and Canada. Because the current strain (H5N1) causes heavy losses in poultry, it is called highly pathogenic avian influenza or HPAI. Note that transmission of avian flu from birds to humans is very rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control . As one person in the US has tested positive for avian influenza and developed mild symptoms, in Colorado .
There has been confusion about whether people should remove their feeders to stop the spread of this disease among wild birds. We have contacted Dr. Julianna Lenoch, representing the USDA APHIS. leads the National Wildlife Program and we have compiled the following summaries of key points related to HPAI, especially among songbirds and other feeder visitors.
Low risk of bird flu for songbirds
There is currently very low risk of outbreak among wild songbirds and no official recommendation to remove feeders unless you also keep poultry , according to the National Wildlife Disease Program. We always recommend that you regularly clean bird feeders and bird baths as a way to keep many types of diseases at bay.
We also always recommend that you follow any recommendations from your state government, even in cases where that advice conflicts with ours. We will update this page as the situation develops.
How do we know that songbirds are at low risk?
- USDA APHIS has a strong, multi-year surveillance program that routinely samples wild birds, including flocks of songbirds (and other species such as rock doves and mourning doves that are often near humans), for the presence of avian influenza. So far in 2022 they have detected the HPAI strain in 3,124 wild birds, with 57 detections in songbirds (see below for a list of species). Latest info on the outbreak .
- Avian influenza does not affect all bird species equally. The “highly pathogenic” part of the term HPAI refers specifically to the severity of disease in poultry, not necessarily in other bird species. For example, waterfowl often carry and transmit bird flu, but rarely get sick from the disease (not even from HPAI strains). Birds of prey are much more susceptible to the disease than waterfowl. Domestic poultry are extremely susceptible to HPAI and spread the disease easily, leading to 100% mortality of affected flocks.
- Songbirds are much less likely than waterfowl to contract bird flu and are less likely to secrete large amounts of virus, meaning they don’t easily transmit the disease. (See Shriner and Carrot 2020 for a detailed review in Viruses magazine .)
- According to a separate study in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases “…although songbirds and terrestrial wild birds may play a limited role in the epidemiology of IAV [avian influenza A viruses] when associated with infected domestic poultry or other aberrant hosts, there is no evidence supporting their involvement as natural reservoirs for IAV.” ( Slusher et al. 2014 )
- For these reasons, bird feeders are unlikely to contribute to an outbreak among songbirds.
If songbirds are at low risk, why are people keeping poultry advised to remove their bird feeders?
- The biggest concern in songbirds is the chance of a rare individual transmitting an infection to poultry. This is a concern because poultry is so much more vulnerable than songbirds to HPAI.
- The main intervention is to keep songbirds away from poultry; it is less important to tell songbirds apart.
- If you have a backyard poultry flock, these are the most important steps to take:
(Click for full details on these USDA APHIS Biosecurity Measures)
- As a secondary measure, USDA APHIS recommends poultry owners remove feeders for wild birds or keep them well away from their captive flock
If you keep nest boxes:
Avian influenza is rarely transmitted to humans, according to the USDA, but nevertheless, our NestWatch project always advises good hygiene and strongly recommends that people wear disposable gloves and/or wash their hands thoroughly after checking nest boxes. Most birds that use nest boxes are passerines, which have a low risk of contracting or transmitting avian influenza. If you are monitoring waterfowl or birds of prey nests (e.g. wood duck, merganser, Canada goose, American kestrel, barred owl), we recommend that you wear gloves, change or wash gloves, and disinfect equipment between nest boxes, wear a mask to wear when cleaning up the nest boxes, and change clothing and footwear before visiting a domesticated poultry.
If you are a wildlife rehabilitator:
Animal caretakers should take precautions when accepting sick birds so that they do not inadvertently introduce HPAI to the rest of their patients. Here’s further guidance for rehabbers, from USDA APHIS . New York state rehabbers are also encouraged to contact the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab for more information.
What to do if you find a sick or dead bird:
Avoid handling sick or dead birds. Call your state wildlife health organization instead; they can determine the cause of death and send the bird to the appropriate lab for testing. In addition, keep pets (including pets) away from sick or dead wild birds.
American Crow (31 total: 1, California; 1, Massachusetts; 1, Michigan; 2, Minnesota; 19, North Dakota; 1, Washington; 6, Wisconsin)
American Robin (1, North Dakota) Black-
billed Magpie (3, Wyoming) Boat Tail Grackle (
Common Grackle (1, Montana)
Common Raven (15 total: 11, Alaska; 1, Minnesota; 1, Montana; 1, Washington; 1, Wisconsin)
Dark-Eyed Junco (1, Minnesota)
Fish Crow (2 total: 1, Florida; 1, New York)
Red-winged Blackbird (1, Michigan)
Tree Swallow (1, Alaska)
American Black Duck
American White Pelican
Barred Tawny Owl
Black-crowned Night Heron Black-crowned Night Heron Black-
Blue -winged Teal
Brown Pelican Cacking
Canada Goose Casp
Cinnamon Teal Golden
Diving Hawk Cormorant sp. Crested Caracara Double-crested Cormorant
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Green -winged Teal
Red-headed Red- necked
hawk Red-tailed hawk Ring-billed gull Ring-
Ross’s Goose Rough-
Royal Tern Ruddy Duck
Sharp – shined Goshawk
Short- billed Gull
Snow Goose White Egret
Swainson’s Caledonian Squirrel Trompe