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Benefield: Bird lovers instituting safety measures in face of avian flu

“Better safe than sorry” precautions could save lives after four cases of avian influenza in wild geese were confirmed in Sonoma County.|

What Can You Do?

Remove bird feeders and cover bird baths.

Have a dedicated set of clothes when dealing with birds, backyard chickens etc. Wash with bleach after each use.

Cover enclosures or housing with solid material.

Wear face mask and gloves when in contact with birds.

Source: The Bird Rescue Center of Sonoma County

Sick or dead birds can be reported to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife by filling out an online form, calling 707-428-2002 or via email at askbdr@wildlife.ca.gov.

It’s a scene we have all gotten used to in this age of scary contagions.

Guests are asked to ring the bell, not simply enter unannounced. Once inside, they must stand in a narrow rectangle of space marked by tape — this is where protective shoe covers are put on.

Masks are, of course, required.

But these are not COVID-19 precautions. These steps (as well as a slew of others) are the new norm of operations at The Bird Rescue Center in Santa Rosa after four cases of avian influenza in wild geese were confirmed in Sonoma County.

“Unfortunately it happened pretty quickly,” said Ashton Kluttz, executive director of the nonprofit Bird Rescue Center.

“Just about two weeks ago it was announced to be in California,” Kluttz said. “Then all of a sudden we were receiving reports.”

“The cases that were confirmed were on private property. Multiple geese passed away in 24 hours,” Kluttz said.

The idea is not to panic, but to prepare.

At The Bird Rescue Center about 150 birds are housed in rehabilitation quarters or the hospital and an additional 13 birds are “ambassadors,” meaning they live on the Chanate Road site and greet visitors.

Officials said the strain of the bird flu poses minimal risk to humans, but people are asked to take precautions if they encounter dead birds or birds showings signs of confusion, diarrhea, coughing and sneezing.

Despite 44 states having confirmed cases of avian flu since April, just one involved a human.

The strain of the virus that is causing worry among local bird lovers and officials is believed to have landed in North America late in 2021. It has spread a steady drumbeat of destruction ever since.

“Everything is pointing to another huge outbreak,” said Maurice Pitesky, UC Cooperative Extension poultry specialist in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis.

The last major outbreak was in 2014 when more than 40 million birds were lost.

County officials said no changes are planned for the swimming lagoon at Spring Lake Regional Park despite its population of geese.

“We have been in contact with the Parks Department, and I know they are making sure that everyone is informed,” Kluttz said.

With all of that in mind, forgive bird lovers if they are putting some extra precautions in place.

After bird deaths were reported in Glenn and Colusa counties, the Sacramento Zoo drained a lake meant for flamingos and took other precautions.

Pitesky recommends backyard chicken coops be covered with impermeable materials, bird baths emptied and feeders put away.

The idea is to make property less attractive for migrating birds to stop. Or poop.

That’s largely how this is spread — feces from birds in flight, feces on the ground, feces on the bottom of a shoe tracked somewhere else.

That is also the reason the rescue center is taking so many steps to keep foot traffic to a minimum.

Kluttz and her crew at the Chanate Road facility have been busy making adjustments to both how their birds are housed but also how staff and volunteers move between spaces.

Their aviaries are now tarped over to keep droppings from migrating birds from falling into their enclosures.

Thermometers have been installed to ensure that enclosures do not get too hot with the added roofing.

“In the population that we serve, it’s definitely a very large concern,” Kluttz said.

“We have set up a different system for taking in birds, that way we can evaluate if they have it,” she said.

There are now two separate exam rooms, and staff and volunteers are required to wear additional personal protective gear.

People with questions about a bird, whether it is related to avian flu or not, are asked to call first, not just show up.

There are a lot of what could be deemed ‘better safe than sorry’ precautions.

But according to UC Davis’ Pitesky, those are measures that could save the lives of birds.

“This could be a bad year. We need to really buckle down and throw the kitchen sink at this,” Pitesky said. “The biggies are to focus on biosecurity. That is number one. Prevention, especially with a virus like this, is always going to be our best approach.”

“I think the most important message is don’t make perfect the enemy of good,” Pitesky said. “We have to do a little better. Perfection is probably not viable.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

What Can You Do?

Remove bird feeders and cover bird baths.

Have a dedicated set of clothes when dealing with birds, backyard chickens etc. Wash with bleach after each use.

Cover enclosures or housing with solid material.

Wear face mask and gloves when in contact with birds.

Source: The Bird Rescue Center of Sonoma County

Sick or dead birds can be reported to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife by filling out an online form, calling 707-428-2002 or via email at askbdr@wildlife.ca.gov.

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