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U of M Raptor Center executive director advises pausing backyard bird feeders while avian flu circulates

Avian flu has hit wild waterfowl and commercial bird populations hard, but data is thin when it comes to songbird transmissions. Due to that, the University of Minnesota Raptor Center is advising people to take down backyard bird feeders and bird baths while the virus is circulating.

A pair of Brewer's Blackbirds chow down on a Highland Road bird feeder in downtown Willmar on Friday, April 15, 2022.
A pair of Brewer's Blackbirds chow down on a Highland Road bird feeder in downtown Willmar on Friday, April 15, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — Fans of backyard bird feeders and bird baths are advised to discontinue their use for the next couple of months while avian flu is circulating.

Dr. Victoria Hall, executive director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, said there are a lot of gaps in the knowledge about the role of songbirds in highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks.

There is high transmission of the currently circulating H5N1 strain in wildlife, she said in a Facebook post. "We know some about how this virus impacts groups of birds like raptors, as these birds often get severely sick and rapidly die from the virus."

A trio of birdhouses and one bird outhouse sit vacant along 14th Street Southwest in downtown Willmar Friday, April 15, 2022.
A trio of birdhouses and one bird outhouse sit vacant along 14th Street Southwest in downtown Willmar Friday, April 15, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

However, there is minimal viral surveillance being done with songbirds, she said, making it hard to measure the risk of transmission from songbirds to other birds.

Because that science is unclear, Hall suggested not encouraging birds to gather together at places such as bird feeders or bird baths.

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"These are places where things like viruses could easily be exchanged between individuals," she wrote. "In areas with HPAI transmission in any avian species, consider pausing the use of bird feeders and baths for the next couple of months until the rate of virus transmission in wild birds dramatically decreases."

Hall said the Raptor Center sees the impact every day of highly pathogenic avian influenza, with humane euthanasia the only tool staff have to help birds like bald eagles and great horned owls that are intensely suffering from fatal neurological illness due to the disease.

A female cardinal sits above a bird feeder along Highland Road in downtown Willmar on Friday, April 15, 2022.
A female cardinal sits above a bird feeder along Highland Road in downtown Willmar on Friday, April 15, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

She said it is also causing severe illness in other species like geese, ducks, blue jays and crows.

Hall said pausing use of bird feeders not only helps protect songbirds that visit yards, but will also help protect all wild bird species.

"We have it in our power to take a short-term action so we are not accidentally assisting in the virus’ spread," she wrote. "This outbreak won’t last forever and I, for one, am greatly looking forward to when I can safely hang my bird feeders back up!"

A bird prepares to land on a birdfeeder on 13th Street Southwest in downtown Willmar on Friday, April 15, 2022.
A bird prepares to land on a bird feeder on 13th Street Southwest in downtown Willmar on Friday, April 15, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Susan Lunneborg is the news editor of the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minnesota. A journalist for more than 25 years, she has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in the Dakotas and Minnesota.
Lunneborg can be reached at: slunneborg@wctib.com or 320-214-4343.
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