PROVIDENCE, RI – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) are advising the public that a Great Black-Backed Gull that was found seriously ill on a beach in South Kingstown on June 23 has tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). The wildlife officials also are announcing that the dead Shearwaters recently found on Rhode Island beaches that were tested for HPAI came back negative. Following up on their advisory last month, they recommend that the public stays clear of sick or dead birds on seashores and reports any cases of waterbird deaths to the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife by clicking here.
A relatively small number of waterbirds such as Cormorants, Gulls, Shearwaters, and Terns washing up dead on beaches is normal in the summer, but in the past six weeks multiple locations along the Atlantic Coast, including Rhode Island, have seen higher than usual numbers. DEM's Division of Fish and Wildlife, which is collecting reports from the public, currently counts 40 dead waterbirds reported this summer, excluding the separate mortality event of Shearwaters that is now thought to be unrelated to HPAI. Wildlife biologists advise, however, that reports coming in from the public tend to be underestimated, especially if there is not a large die-off of birds.
While risk of HPAI to humans is low, the public is urged not to touch dead birds and to keep dogs on leashes and away from carcasses. State, federal, and non-government conservation organizations are continuing to collaborate to test a sample of specimens and are actively monitoring beaches. RIDEM, USFWS, and partners will keep the public updated with any further developments.
"Avian influenza refers to disease in birds caused by infection with avian (bird) influenza (flu) Type A viruses," states the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC site continues: "Avian influenza A viruses have been isolated from more than 100 different species of wild birds around the world. These viruses occur naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species."
Avian influenza occurs in both low and high pathogenic forms, which refer to the severity of the disease and how likely it is to result in death of poultry. Most avian influenzas are low pathogenic and cause minimal death and disease to infected birds. In 2020, a strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 virus emerged in Europe and Central Asia and spread to North America in December 2021. The last outbreak of HPAI in the United States was in 2017. HPAI causes high mortality rates in poultry and has severely affected nesting seabirds in Europe. Since its arrival in North America, HPAI has been detected in the United States and Canada. Conservation organizations are particularly concerned about the potential for outbreaks to jeopardize imperiled waterbird species with already small populations such as Piping Plovers, Red Knots, and Roseate Terns. HPAI also can affect mammals, and a recent seal die-off in Maine has been attributed to the virus. Symptoms of infected birds can include neurological issues such as imbalance, inability to fly, and respiratory distress.
What the public can do:
HPAI continues to be a risk for domestic and wild birds. People with poultry/backyard flocks should disinfect shoes/boots before visiting and coming back from beaches, parks, and refuges. For more information on HPAI including FAQs, click here. If a dead bird is found, you can report the siting to the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife by clicking here.