BROOKFIELD, Ill. — Millions of chickens at poultry farms have already become ill, died or been culled due to a highly contagious avian flu outbreak. Raptors and birds of prey, including bald eagles, are also becoming infected. Zoos are now concerned and are changing their procedures across the country.
At the Brookfield Zoo just outside Chicago, the white pelicans like many other birds have been moved indoors to protect them from a deadly avian flu strain.
“This yearm the bird flu outbreak is a very dangerous one. It's a high pathogenicity avian influenza,” said Dr. Sathya Chinnadurai, senior vice president of animal health and welfare at the Chicago Zoological Society.
He said the recent outbreak of bird flu has forced zoos around the country to move their avian populations indoors – and away from the public.
“Some of our birds, like peacocks, guinea fowl that are very closely related to chickens, those are birds that we consider very susceptible to avian influenza. So, we brought them into their indoor winter holding areas,” said Chinnadurai.
In mid-January, the Department of Agriculture first detected the highly contagious strain of avian flu in a wild bird in South Carolina. The Eurasian H5 influenza -- hasn’t been seen here in the U.S. since 2016.
It’s a major concern for numerous vulnerable avian species.
“Bird flu is a wildlife disease, right. It moves along migratory bird flyways with migratory waterfowl,” said Chinnadurai. “For us, we want to make sure that we're not putting any endangered, threatened species at risk of contracting this potentially deadly disease.”
In recent days dozens of bald eagles in the wild have reportedly died from the virus – likely through feeding on infected live prey or scavenging carcasses.
“We're talking about the poultry industry. We're talking about the zoo industry. But obviously, the birds that are being hit the hardest are free-ranging wildlife,” said Chinnadurai. “Hundreds of birds that have potentially died from this disease, and that could be devastating for threatened populations like bald eagles.”
As of late last week, at least 34 states have detected a positive case of the avian flu in wild bird samples according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
At the Baker’s Lake Forest Preserve - home to one of the most substantial heron rookeries in the Midwest over 200 wild birds died over the course of just one week.
Though further federal testing is underway it’s presumed to have been caused by the H5 flu.
Back at the Brookfield Zoo, they’ve added footpath and disinfection stations to their bird buildings to prevent infectious material from spreading.
And though millions of chickens have been killed to prevent the spread of the virus, Chinnadurai says zoos won’t have to do that.
“Compared to a poultry operation that would have thousands of birds, we can more effectively isolate and test individual birds here,” he said.
In the meantime, wildlife experts continue to monitor transmission through migration season. But it could be months before it’s safe for these birds to go back outside.