Dead birds prompt warnings across Island

Health agents and animal control officers concerned avian flu is here.

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Highly pathogenic avian influenza has been found in Massachusetts. Testing is underway to see if hundreds of bird deaths on the Island could be connected. -Rich Saltzberg

Health and animal control officials on the Island are warning that possible avian flu, specifically highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), may have infected hundreds of dead cormorants that have been found on Martha’s Vineyard beaches.

On Wednesday, the state issued a press release saying that there has been an increase in shorebird deaths statewide, with cormorants, ducks, terns, and gulls affected, and HPAI is suspected.

“Over the past week, Massachusetts has seen a substantial uptick in reports of dead and dying seabirds, including eiders, cormorants, and gulls,” Andrew Vitz, MassWildlife state ornithologist said in a press release. “We are asking for the public’s help in reporting observations of sick shorebirds along the coastline. Prompt reporting will expedite testing and diagnosis in cooperation with our state and federal partners, who have been monitoring HPAI for several years.”

A sign at Lambert’s Cove Beach in West Tisbury warns beachgoers not to touch dead birds, and to keep their dogs on leashes and away from dead birds as well.

West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson told The Times he posted the signs after reports of dead birds being found on the beach, along Makonikey, and elsewhere on the Vineyard. Johnson said he walked the shoreline of Lambert’s Cove Beach twice on Tuesday, but didn’t see any dead birds. 

Chilmark health agent Marina Lent told The Times there have been reports of dead seagulls on Menemsha Beach. “I have not seen any dead birds, but I’ve heard from enough people that they’re out there,” Lent said.

Lent stressed it’s not known what is killing the birds, but the testing will hopefully reveal what’s behind it. Nationally, bird flu has been topical, Lent said, but she stressed that’s not a bird flu that’s lethal to humans. That flu is also not a kind that easily jumps to people, Lent said. However, there’s always the risk it could mutate and do so. 

“Avian influenza rarely infects humans,” state epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown said in a press release. “Although the risk is low, direct contact with infected birds or heavily contaminated environments can sometimes spread the disease to people. People are urged not to handle or feed any birds suspected of being infected.”

Lent emphasized there is no proof yet the Vineyard is dealing with any type of bird flu whatsoever. Generally speaking, Lent said, the public health concerns of a bird flu on the Vineyard would be its environmental impact, the potential food system impact, and concern such a virus could adapt to affect humans. Lent said dead domestic and wild birds can be reported to the state.

“Sick or dead domestic birds (chickens, turkeys, gamebirds, domestic ducks, etc.) should be reported to Department of Agricultural Resources Division of Animal Health at 617-626-1795 or through this online reporting form [bit.ly/MApoultrydeathform],” a state email states. “Sick or dead wild birds should be reported to the Department of Fish and Game Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) at 508-389-6300, or mass.wildlife@mass.gov.”

Edgartown animal control officer Kim Andrade sent out a detailed list of where dead cormorants have been found on the Island. The letter was briefly mentioned at the Aquinnah select board meeting Tuesday night.

Andrade reported eight to 15 dead birds washed up on the short beach area of Great Rock Bight Preserve in Chilmark; 31 found on South Beach in Edgartown, 50-plus found between Gay Head and Lobsterville Beach in Aquinnah; and 40 at Lambert’s Cove in West Tisbury.

Andrade referred questions from The Times to Edgartown health agent Matt Poole.

The public should treat the birds appearing on the beaches as they would any dead animal they encounter in the outdoors,” he told The Times. “Dogs on Edgartown beaches are supposed to be leashed, and that level of control by an owner is advisable in this current situation.”

He suggested that dog owners who let their dogs run off-leash on up-Island beaches might want to rethink that, given the reports of dead birds.

Meanwhile, Kate Hoffman, animal control officer in Tisbury, posted a warning on the animal control department’s Facebook page. “This is extremely dangerous to us as a small Island. PLEASE inform your local ACO if you find any dead birds. It does say it is not all confirmed BUT we have had hundreds of dead cormorants washing up all over the Island,” she wrote. “The ACOs across the Island have collected them, and many were sent off to Mass Fish and Wildlife for testing. We will keep you updated. MOST IMPORTANTLY: DO NOT TOUCH THEM!!! Keep your dogs [leashed] if on beaches so they do not get contaminated. Take care when going in water; many are floating in seaweed, etc.”

Johnson said it was reported to him by West Tisbury animal control, which conducted testing on dead birds, that results are expected to come back at the end of the week. Staff at West Tisbury animal control couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. 

West Tisbury and Edgartown have published a warning on their websites from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Division of Animal Health and Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife).

“HPAI has been detected in either wild waterbirds, domestic birds, or both, along the East Coast from Canada to Florida. Affected states include MA, CT, ME, NH, NY, and others. HPAI surveillance of domestic and wild birds in MA is ongoing,” the alert states. “Based on detections in birds in multiple locations in MA and surrounding states, HPAI appears to be prevalent in at least some species of this region’s wild bird population. This means that all domestic poultry in Massachusetts may be at risk of exposure.

“Waterbirds, including shorebirds, gulls, and waterfowl, especially geese and dabbling ducks like mallards, are most likely to carry the HPAI virus. Use good biosecurity to protect your flock and your facility against the HPAI virus. Keep wild waterbirds away from your flock. Flock owners and visitors may accidentally expose their flocks to HPAI through contaminated shoes, clothing, or equipment.”

Rich Saltzberg contributed to this reporting.

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