The H5N1 strain is considered the worst bird flu to hit Saskatchewan since 2015.

Biologist Paule Hjertaas considers himself an avid ornithologist and often admires many different birds on a regular basis. But April 8th was different.

“At first we thought it was poisoning,” Hjertaas said. “When we got home, my husband called the conservation officer and they mentioned that there was probably one case of bird flu.”

Hjertass returned to the same location on April 12 and found several dead birds on the stretch of road they had parked on.

“I assumed the birds had been there for a while,” Hjertass said. And that’s why there were so many.

That day, she decided to film a goose that was so disoriented that he could barely walk and had difficulty flying.

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“It was obvious that the bird had neurological problems and this bird was flying, but it was just as disorientated in flight as it was on the ground. The flight was very unstable.”

Avian influenza is an influenza virus specific to birds. They are known to naturally carry these viruses as many different strains are constantly circulating. But provincial wildlife specialist Iga Stasiak said it was a new strain of what is known as H5N1.

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“It’s completely different,” Stasiak said. “This is causing more mass mortality among our wild bird populations.”

Bonnie Dell, president of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Society, was not surprised that bird flu had made its way into the province, but was shocked to see how quickly it began to spread.

“Personally, I noticed that I removed my bird feeders,” Dell said. “I don’t want to encourage bird collecting and I hope more people do it. This is a small way to help. The ministry also suggests disinfecting bird feeders regularly.

“I don’t think we can take enough precautions to help the bird population.”

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Dell said if anyone sees a bird fighting, call the Wildlife 911 hotline at (306) 242-7177. Dell said they are currently investigating on a case by case basis.

If someone notices a dead bird in the yard, experts always recommend calling the Help Desk of the Ministry of the Environment. But if you choose to dispose of the bird yourself, the ministry recommends wearing a mask along with disposable gloves while the bird is in a double bag. When the bag is thrown away, the mask and disposable gloves should also be thrown away. The final step is to disinfect the room with a 10% bleach solution to stop the spread of the virus.

“If you encounter a large flock that is dead or struggling,” Dell said, “do not approach it, do not try to get inside and clear a large area that is full of dead birds. This is the job of the professionals.”

Dell said that simply by entering or driving into the area, the virus can spread back to your home, past neighboring farms, because when a person leaves, they are now on their car’s tires and shoes. It’s very contagious.

“There have been no reports of it spreading among humans or crossing species,” Dell said. “But that cannot be ruled out; it’s COVID for birds. We don’t know much about this yet.”

Dell said the main problem is endangered bird species in the province. She said endangered species such as the American cranes and sage grouse may not recover from a virus like this, which is a terrifying thought for her.

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Stasiak, the provincial wildlife health officer, said the strain of bird flu is causing the worst outbreak in the province in seven years. What can be done to help birds in this outbreak is limited, Stasiak said, but there is one thing that can be done.

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“Of course, we don’t want to encourage aggregation or artificial aggregation of wild birds,” Stasiak said. “Especially waterfowl, so things like feeding waterfowl and similar methods are not recommended at this time.”

If you see a sick or dead bird, do not approach it. Leave it to the experts. Call the Department of the Environment Helpline at 1-800-567-4224 or the Canadian Wildlife Conservation Cooperative at 306-966-5815.

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