March 18, 2022
In all honesty, this news probably couldn’t come at a worse time this spring.
Because just as the height of the Feb. 7-April 30, 2022 conservation order spring season for snow geese arrives in the waterfowl-rich state of Missouri, there’s new worry about the health of those clouds of millions of light geese as they pinwheel over fields with white-clad hunters laying in vast decoy spreads below.
With literally millions of light geese—snows, blues, and Ross’s geese—migrating northward and pushing into Missouri’s famed goose hunting grounds—like the "Golden Triangle" area we pinpointed just days ago—state wildlife officials are obviously concerned as reports continue to roll out of an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) continues to rear its ugly head in poultry flocks and wild birds in the northern half of the state.
- So far, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has confirmed that HPAI has now been detected in at least eight different wild bird species across 10 counties in the state, including the initial confirmation of the disease in an American white pelican in Clay County, Mo.
In quick succession after that initial finding a few days ago, an MDC news release indicates that HPAI has now been confirmed in snow geese and/or Ross’s geese in Buchanan, Chariton, Holt, Pettis, and Randolph counties; a mallard in Barton County; a hooded merganser in St. Louis County; a bald eagle in St. Charles County; and peregrine falcon and sharp-shinned hawk in Vernon County.
The confirmation of the HPAI cases in the various wild bird species noted above was confirmed by the National Veterinary Services Lab in Ames, Iowa, as well as the University of Missouri Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab.
The outbreak of what is often referred to as the bird flu was first detected earlier this month in the Show Me State’s poultry industry, including a commercial poultry flock in Stoddard County on March 3, and in a backyard flock in Bates County a day later. The disease has been confirmed in at least three other poultry flocks across the state so far, all of which have been depopulated.
With fears of the highly contagious virus spreading even further, MDC is working closely with the Missouri Department of Agriculture, as well as other state and federal agencies, to monitor and respond to the situation.
Of particular note to waterfowl hunters in the Midwest, this is unfortunately occurring at the height of the Missouri spring snow goose migration, a time when numerous hunters are seeking to take advantage of the liberal regulations in place during the annual special light goose conservation season.
With the ongoing appearance of so many migrating geese over the next few weeks, the fear is the that the highly contagious disease could spread like wildfire given the close quarters that many geese are keeping right now as they push north towards their Arctic nesting grounds.
As worrisome as this development might be in the middle of the grand migration spectacle, the appearance of HPAI this month hasn’t caught wildlife officials completely off-guard, since there have been other reports of the pathogen noted elsewhere this year in other flyways.
"Avian influenza viruses naturally occur in bird populations, especially waterfowl, shorebirds, and domestic birds such as chickens and turkeys," said MDC state wildlife veterinarian Sherri Russell, in the MDC news release. "We have been monitoring this strain since early January, when it was detected in the eastern United States and Canada."
Wildlife officials say that the virus spreads from bird to bird through fecal matter, nasal discharge, and bird saliva, particularly troublesome in places where birds congregate to stage, feed and rest on their annual migrations. And given the proximity that exists in some places to domestic and agricultural poultry, there is the risk for cross-contamination and a back and forth spread like what is being seen in Missouri at the moment.
And while the risk isn’t great right now—as the second anniversary of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. is observed this month—there’s also the small possibility that some people could potentially be affected by the virus.
"Fortunately, avian influenza does not present an immediate public health concern, although on rare occasions it has infected humans and other animals," said Russell. "We recommend you avoid handling sick or dead birds, and to report sick or dead wild birds, especially waterfowl to MDC."
MDC officials also advise waterfowl hunters—and potentially spring turkey hunters in a few weeks if the outbreak continues—to do such things as taking "…common sense precautions when handling harvested birds in the field or at home. They should be aware that it is possible to transport avian influenza viruses on boats, waders, or other equipment, especially if it isn’t dry before moving it from one site to another. Allowing hunting equipment to dry between outings will reduce this chance."
Are infected geese—and poultry and other game birds infected by this virus—safe to eat during a HPAI outbreak? State wildlife officials in Missouri say yes, as long as hunters adhere to cooking methods that cause enough heat to kill the virus.
"It is safe to eat poultry and wild game birds because normal cooking temperatures are hot enough to kill the virus," said Russell. "Make sure to cook your meat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit."
With obvious concern for the HPAI outbreak and how it might continue to grow and spread, Missouri has initiated a multi-agency response, including the MDC and other statewide and federal partners, to increase surveillance in wild bird populations across the state. In conducting that surveillance work, Missouri officials have contacted wildlife rehabilitator groups, falconer groups, waterfowlers, and other stakeholders to assist.
In particular, MDC and its partners are interested in reports of single waterfowl, raptors, or avian scavengers that show neurological symptoms – i.e., tremors, head tilting, lethargy, loss of coordination, inability to fly or walk properly, or trouble standing upright.
The MDC news release indicates that state wildlife officials are also interested in reports of waterfowl or other waterbird deaths involving more than five birds where the cause of death is unknown. The agency notes that citizens can report sick or dead birds to wildlife officials by emailing WildlifeHealth@mdc.mo.gov or by calling their local MDC office (Editor’s Note: a list of regional MDC offices can be found here).
In the meantime, Missouri wildlife officials report that situation updates of their state’s ongoing avian influenza outbreak in wild birds are available here.