Bird flu in Whatcom County linked to Wiser Lake area

The two separate strains of bird flu traced to wild birds in Whatcom County have been linked to the Wiser Lake area, which is three miles southwest of Lynden.

Tests identified the H5N2 virus in a northern pintail duck and H5N8 in four captive gyrfalcons fed what is believed to be a wild widgeon killed by a hunter, according to Hon Ip, a virologist with the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.

The pintail was part of a small die-off of birds at Wiser Lake and the widgeon came from an area near the lake, Ip said Wednesday, Dec. 17.

Remains of the widgeon were sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Iowa for tests to confirm that it was the carrier of the virus that sickened the gyrfalcons, according to Ip. At least three of the falcons have died.

Bird flu can be deadly to poultry and other birds. Its confirmation in Whatcom County has created concern among officials and residents here, including those with backyard chicken flocks, who are following news of an outbreak of bird flu in commercial poultry just over the border in British Columbia.

And while the outbreak in Canada also has been linked to a H5N2 strain of the disease, Ip said officials don’t yet know if it’s exactly the same strain found in the pintail duck at Wiser Lake.

“We don’t have enough information between our virus and the Canadian virus to say that they’re identical. There’s a lot of similarities. We think the two viruses are related,” Ip said.

Officials also don’t yet know whether wild birds at Wiser Lake spread the disease north to poultry operations in Canada, or whether Wiser Lake birds were exposed to the virus from those commercial poultry operations.

The bird flu cases in Whatcom County were found quickly because of increased surveillance due to the B.C. outbreak, officials have said. But Ip also said that die-offs at Wiser Lake are tested for bird flu “as a precaution to monitor for these kinds of introduction.”

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife collected the pintail duck after a die-off of about 50 to 100 wild birds at Wiser Lake over a short period of time, Ip said. Such die-offs are usual at this time of the year at the lake, where some 10,000 birds gather, and officials have documented poisoning from lead shot or a fungal disease called aspergillosis in past years.

Most of the birds those birds that died at Wiser Lake did so because of aspergillosis, according to Ip.

Officials tracking the bird flu once again stressed on Wednesday that the H5N2 and H5N8 strains weren’t an immediate health concern for people because they have been found elsewhere in the world and have yet to infect humans.

And there hasn’t been a reported case of a person in the U.S. sickened with bird flu from an infected bird.

Neither virus has been found in commercial poultry in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said. And neither virus has been in the U.S. until now.

Still, agriculture officials said that poultry, poultry products and wild birds are safe to eat even if they did carry the disease if they are properly handled and cooked to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, a town hall meeting has been organized for Thursday, Dec. 18, in Lynden for poultry producers and owners of backyard flocks.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture and representatives from other agencies will be there to talk about the current situation in Washington state and in B.C.

Agriculture officials said they picked Lynden for the public meeting because of its proximity to the Canadian border and because they plan to increase testing in the area. The two strains are highly contagious to chickens.

Testing would be fine with Lauralee McLeod, who has a backyard flock of chickens at her Wiser Lake home.

“We’re right in the flyway,” she said.

McLeod said her chickens aren’t sick but she thought officials might like to have data, given where she lives.

Officials said that commercial producers and backyard bird enthusiasts can keep the flu away from their flocks by taking steps that include preventing contact with wild birds, but McLeod said that could be difficult. Her chickens are housed in a small coop and also are fenced in in a larger area.

“But being chickens they fly out, walk around. We don’t have them enclosed in any kind of big building,” she said.

For her, the takeaway is that “people need to be watching their flocks and not ignoring any symptoms or any die-offs.”

Because wild birds can carry bird flu viruses without appearing sick, officials also are telling people to avoid sick or dead poultry or wildlife.

If contact does occur, people should wash their hands with soap and water and change their clothes before coming into contact with healthy domestic poultry and birds.

The status of the die-offs was corrected Thursday, Dec. 18.