A Double-crested Cormorant displays signs of distress on Ocracoke Island. Photo by Connie Leinbach

By Peter Vankevich

Sightings of sick and dying birds on the Outer Banks and islands in the Pamlico Sound are pointing to a major outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

Although officials believe the disease currently poses little risk to humans, people are warned to not touch distressed birds because contact could cause transmission to other animals.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one human case has been documented this year. The patient worked in the poultry industry and reported fatigue for a few days as the only symptom and has since recovered.

The presence of HPAI, also known as avian, bird flu and HPAI H5N1, has caused the euthanization of nearly 53 million U.S. birds this year making it the worst outbreak in national history — resulting in higher prices for chicken, turkey and eggs.

Carmen Johnson is a wildlife diversity biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). Last month she collected several dead cormorants and gulls while inspecting the dredge spoil restoration project on Big Foot Island, which is a few miles from Ocracoke village in the Pamlico Sound.

A dead Great Black-backed Gull found recently on the dredge spoil island in Big Foot Slough in the Pamlico Sound. Photo by Carmen Johnson, NCWRC

Those specimens were sent to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS), a diagnostic and research service established for the specific purpose of investigating wildlife diseases for state wildlife agencies. The lab results were presumptive positive for HPAI. They’ve now been sent to a second lab for confirmatory testing.

Although these may be the first regional results of a positive HPAI test this fall, many other specimens have also been sent off and are awaiting results.

Even if federal and state agencies and organizations are being cautious while awaiting results, there are plenty of sick and dead bird observations indicating this could or already has become a wide-scale HPAI outbreak.

“We are seeing hundreds of dead and dying cormorants at the large winter roost sites at the inlets of Cape Lookout National Seashore,” said John Altman, its supervisory biologist.

Lindsay Addison, coastal biologist with Audubon North Carolina, confirmed seeing dead and sick cormorants and pelicans on Beacon Island that are consistent with HPAI. Beacon Island, located a few miles into the Pamlico Sound from Portsmouth Island, is owned and managed by Audubon North Carolina and is an important nesting site for Brown Pelicans.

Dead and sick Double-crested Cormorants mingle with healthy birds on Ocracoke’s South Point. Photo by Amy Thompson, NPS

Addison said North Carolina typically sees Brown Pelican mortality in the winter months, particularly on the heels of cold spells. So, seeing some dead pelicans or other species of birds on the coast is not unusual.

“Without sending samples in for necropsy and pathology, we can’t be certain of the cause of death,” she wrote in an email. “We are working with the NCWRC to collect samples when they would be useful to the larger HPAI surveillance effort.”

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore, administered by the National Park Service, has no confirmed cases, but is awaiting test results of specimens that have been forwarded to the NPS Wildlife Health Branch out of Fort Collins, Colorado, said Michelle Tongue, acting chief of Resource Management and Science for National Parks of Eastern North Carolina. She noted in a Dec. 21 communication that approximately 200 dead cormorants have been found recently on Ocracoke’s South Point.

Up until now, there has not been a major HPAI outbreak for wild birds in eastern North Carolina but there have been some cases.

NCWRC reported last January that a hunter-harvested Northern Shoveler in Hyde County had tested positive for HPAI. Several other cases were also reported earlier in the year, some asymptomatic hunter-harvested waterfowl while others were symptomatic mortalities.

This fall, WRC received reports and lab results confirming that the deaths of 100s of Black Vultures in North Carolina are from HPAI. Vultures and Bald Eagles are particularly susceptible to HPAI as they will feed on carrion.

In anticipation of HPAI occurring, in October the agency issued a cautionary warning noting that wild birds are arriving from states and Canada where HPAI was present. It encouraged waterfowl hunters to be careful when handling wild birds during hunting season.

These safety procedures include refraining from harvesting or handling wild birds that are obviously sick, and to dress game birds in the field whenever possible wearing disposable gloves. After handling waterfowl wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based sanitizer.

“If someone comes across a mortality event involving five or more waterbirds or waterfowl, or a mortality event of any size for raptors or avian scavengers, including crows, ravens and gulls, we want to know about them,” said Sarah Van de Berg, wildlife biologist with NCWRC in a release. “We are particularly interested in morbidity events involving any number of those same bird species that are observed with clinical signs consistent with neurological impairment, like swimming in circles, head tilt and lack of coordination.”

Confirmed and expected wild bird HPAI cases are occurring throughout the United States, including Mississippi, Louisiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and California. “The Coloradoan” reported this week that more than 4,500 Snow Geese had died on the Eastern Plains, located in the migratory waterfowl Central Plains Flyway, which comprises more than half the landmass of the continental United States, before extending into Central and South America and is where tens of thousands of waterfowl congregate in winter.

Worldwide, the news is also bad. Canada is experiencing outbreaks in all provinces and territories.

This is the largest outbreak in European history, according to the European Food Safety Authority, with wild bird detections in 37 of the 45 European countries. In northern Scotland, thousands of Great Skuas and Northern Gannets have succumbed to the virus in the past two years, a source of major concern because these islands have the largest nesting colonies in the world for these sea birds.

The CDC has reported that HPAI has also been detected in wild birds in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

Before this year, the largest bird flu outbreak in U.S. history occurred in 2015, in what the USDA at the time called “arguably the most significant animal health event in U.S. history.”

At this stage, there is little that can be done to control the outbreak in wild birds and nature will have to take its course.

To help understand the scope of the outbreak, the public is encouraged to report die-offs of five or more birds, and erratic wild bird behavior by calling the N.C. Wildlife Helpline at 866-318-2401 or by email at HWI@ncwildlife.org.

Double-crested Cormorants can congregate on Ocracoke’s South Point in the thousands this time of the year. Photo by Amy Thompson, NPS
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