Outdoor Articles

Ducks Ideal As Flu Carrier

by Pursue The Outdoors on October 12th, 2005 in Waterfowl Hunting

Somewhere right now near the upper reaches of the Mississippi Flyway is a northern pintail duck that spent the summer breeding in Alaska.

During the next few weeks, the bird will steadily make its way through Canada and into the northern United States. If it avoids hunters and their elaborate decoy spreads, it should reach the Mid-South by year’s end.

Local hunters hope the bird makes it here and brings plenty of friends. But many wildlife biologists worry that such birds may someday be the perfect transport for a deadly strain of avian flu that has already claimed lives in eight Asian countries.

“The northern pintail is one bird that spends time in Alaska every summer,” said Brian Millsap, a migratory bird expert with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “While they’re in Alaska, pintails come into contact with other birds that spend a lot of time in Asia where this flu has been so prevalent. You can certainly see how a connection could be made.”


Though U.S. health officials do not expect an avian flu pandemic in North America this year, Millsap said it’s just a matter of time before the flu reaches Alaska. From there, he said the natural instincts of migratory birds like the pintail could help carry the bug all over the United States.

The threat is so real that the Alaska Department of Game & Fish has posted a message on its Web site, urging hunters to exercise caution while handling dead waterfowl this hunting season. The list of precautions includes simple measures like washing hands thoroughly after handling dead birds and not touching hands to mouth while in the field.

Millsap said hunters across the Mid-South should familiarize themselves with the list because similar warnings will likely be made for mainland states, including those in the Mississippi Flyway, as early as next year. The Mississippi Flyway consists of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin.

“Whether it happens in one year, two years or three years, the chances are very high that hunters all across the United States will come into contact with a bird carrying this flu,” Millsap said. “You can never be too careful — and most of these measures are just pure common sense anyway. So why not start now?”

Memphis-based Ducks Unlimited is also preparing a cautionary statement on avian flu that should be posted on the organization’s Web site by the end of the week. The statement will encourage hunters to stay abreast of the latest happenings regarding avian flu. It will also provide Internet links to current information about the flu and outbreaks across the globe.

“It’s getting to the point where I receive quite a few calls and e-mails every week about avian influenza from DU members around the country,” said DU waterfowl biologist Curt MyKut. “We don’t want people to panic — we want them to understand that we don’t expect any problems from avian flu this hunting season. But we know people are concerned, and we want to do everything we can to help keep them informed.”

Several federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Geological Survey, have already joined forces to monitor Alaskan waterfowl for signs of avian flu. The same groups are discussing mechanisms for monitoring waterfowl flocks in the mainland, starting next year.

According to Millsap, the measures will depend heavily on cooperation from waterfowl hunters.

“Hunters in many states will likely be asked to donate tissue samples from ducks they have killed,” he said. “Hunters will also be asked to report any strange behavior they witness from live waterfowl. The hunters are the ones who spend the most time watching these birds — and scientists are going to need their help to stay on top of this flu.”

The potential for avian flu outbreaks among wild, migrating waterfowl has already been witnessed in several countries.

In Turkey, about 3,000 pen-raised turkeys and chickens were slaughtered and buried in lime-drenched pits after an outbreak this month. Turkish wildlife officials told Reuters news service they were “99 percent certain” the outbreak was caused by migrating birds.

In China, more than 6,000 bar-headed geese have died since a July outbreak of avian flu. In Romania, quarantine orders have been imposed on seven villages whose birds have been affected by the flu. Migratory bird hunting has been banned in the country’s famed delta region, and the agriculture minister said the country will be forced to cull about 45,000 farm-raised birds.

Precautions for duck hunters

  • Do not handle birds that are obviously sick or are found dead.
  • Keep your game birds cool, clean and dry.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke while cleaning your birds.
  • Use rubber gloves when cleaning game.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol wipes after dressing birds.
  • Clean all tools and surfaces immediately afterward; use hot, soapy water, then disinfect with 10 percent chlorine bleach solution.
  • Cook game meat thoroughly to kill disease organisms and parasites.

Source: Alaska Division of Fish and Game

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