Highly contagious avian flu could be affecting more than just agriculture birds as wildlife experts in the province say they are starting to see concerning conditions for bald eagles and other wild birds in the southwestern part of B.C.
Caeley Thacker, a wildlife veterinarian with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, says an inter-agency effort is being made with Environment and Climate Change Canada and the Ministry of Agriculture to closely monitor the current bald eagle population and nests.
"They have 22 active nests that they're monitoring, and at this time, only five are still active," Thacker said on the CBC's The Early Edition on Monday. "The report from last year was about half of the nests monitored were active, so it's lower this year."
She said the province has started to closely monitor bald eagles and collect data to find out what is causing the low nest success and why only a handful of nests had chicks.
Thacker said some birds have tested positive for avian flu, but that doesn't seem to be the only factor contributing to the dramatic drop in young eagles in the southwestern part of the province, as well as the spike in the reporting of dead birds.
"Other factors could be the weather. We are having a particularly cold and wet spring, but we [also] need to look further into what is happening with the food source. We don't know exactly yet what is happening."
She said predator species like eagles and other raptors are especially susceptible to avian influenza as they could consume a carcass or a live infected bird.
"As of last week, we tested about 40 eagles, and we've had 10 positives for that highly pathogenic avian influenza strain."
As the spring migration continues, she said jurisdictions in the north are also seeing more birds infected with avian flu.
The province said in a written statement it has collected 47 dead eagles since February, 12 of which had tested positive for avian influenza.
Cases among waterfowl
Eagles often prey on waterfowl, such as ducks and geese.
Jackie McQuillan, the support centre lead with the Wildlife Rescue Association of B.C., says 45 suspected cases of avian flu have been identified in waterfowl taken to their treatment facility in the Lower Mainland. Testing has not yet confirmed whether it's the highly contagious form that's been circulating in B.C.
She said they're seeing strong neurological symptoms such as convulsing, as well as twisted necks and swollen heads in birds that they believe have the virus.
Although avian influenza can be hard to spot, Thacker said bird watchers should also look out for swollen eyes or heads and lethargic behaviour.
McQuillan said if an eagle saw a bird that wasn't in great shape, unable to evade its predator, it's likely the eagle would eat an infected bird.
Mill Lake a 'complete disaster'
Elizabeth Melnick, the founder of Elizabeth's Wildlife Centre in Abbotsford, says the number of calls and reports of Canada geese and goslings showing symptoms of avian flu in Mill Lake started to skyrocket at the end of May and into June.
She said things have slowed down in the last two weeks, but she's never seen the virus affect so many wild birds.
"People were saying there's dead geese littered all over the grounds, and it was really, really bad," Melnick told CBC News. "It was predominately Mill Lake."
The lake near the Trans-Canada Highway in Abbotsford is a popular community area, Melnick said, with a nature trail around the water, a picnic and play area for families, and an outdoor swimming pool.
She said the centre was receiving reports of dead geese up to four times a day in June.
"Mill Lake was a complete disaster. We had so many calls of dead and dying Canada geese. We've got babies and frequent feeders in that area, and the phones never stopped," Melnick said.
She said the centre also received two ducks from Aldergrove that tested positive for avian flu and one great blue heron from Chilliwack.
"It's always the same symptoms. The head shaking, the stargazing, it's all neurological. The goslings had snowy white eyes as well, and they were also lethargic."
Keeping infection out of the environment
While outbreaks are easier to maintain in an agricultural setting, not much can be done for wild birds, says Thacker, so the best thing we can do is prevent the environment from becoming infected.
"The best thing we can do is remove carcasses from the landscape and prevent birds from congregating as much as possible," she said.
She said there has been a decline in eagles on the West Coast since last year.
"We need to figure out what is causing that and what we can do about it, if anything."