Avian flu confirmed among Kingston area crows

Crows crowd the hydro lines at John Counter Boulevard and Division Street last fall. Photo by Daniel Tastard-Homer/Kingstonist.

Recent reports have confirmed the presence of avian flu in the Kingston area. So when Melanie Dugan found a dead crow in her downtown Kingston driveway on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, she followed Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) Public Health’s direction and contacted both the City of Kingston and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College.

What happened next caused her more alarm than finding the dead bird did.

“I contacted the City, assuming they were monitoring the situation and might want to examine the bird,” she said. But, according to Dugan, “They sent two young men with no protective gear to pick up the bird and take it to what they called an ‘animal waste station.’”

Concerned for their safety, Dugan sent them away and contacted the City again, asking that any workers handling dead birds would have protective gear.

In contrast, Dugan said, “The CWHC expressed interest in examining the crow I had found and couriered me a cooler so I could send them the corpse.” 

Upon receiving the bird carcass, CWHC did oropharyngeal and cloacal swabs on the dead crow; these tests came back positive for the Influenza A virus.

“As this crow was found dead and it had a positive test result for influenza virus, it is suspected that infection with the highly pathogenic strain (H5N1) of avian influenza is responsible for the sudden death of this bird,” wrote the pathologist, noting that CWHC had received numerous avian flu-positive crows.

Although the risk of transmission to humans is considered low, the CWHC still advised that anyone who was in contact with this bird before its death should self-monitor for symptoms of avian influenza for 10 days following exposure. While Dugan is not aware of anyone handling the bird before its death, she is not very impressed with the City’s response to her inquiries.

“Frankly, I see this as a ‘protect the workers’ issue,” she said. “We’ve just been through a pandemic. We have the masks, gloves, and eyewear required to protect the folks collecting dead birds. Those folks should know what they’re handling and should be issued protective gear if they’re being asked to do work that may put their health at risk.”

She went on, “The Spanish flu pandemic — which infected 500 million people, one-third of the world’s population at that time, and killed from 10 to 100 million people — was a mutation of a form of avian flu. We’ve just lived through one pandemic; we don’t need another.”

One dead crow may not be of any great concern to the City, but thousands of crows have chosen Kingston as their seasonal fall and winter home this year.

Crows have been enjoying Kingston’s ambience so much that residents have taken notice of flocks of thousands roosting in the City overnight. There is even a Facebook group called “Crow Watch, Kingston, Ontario!” dedicated to observing the massive murders (‘murder’ being the collective noun for crows).

As fascinating as they are to watch, the mess crows leave behind is a concern, especially if avian flu is now in the mix. In November, for example, Central Public School was forced to close its schoolyard to its students due to a flock of birds visiting and leaving a considerable amount of feces behind. At that time, Limestone District School Board’s Facility Services arranged for a power washing company to clear the benches, play structure, and tarmac, while a pest control company advised the school and board on how to prevent the issue in future. The school reported this issue to KFL&A Public Health at that time and implemented another round of handwashing education as a further precaution.

Kingstonist has reached out to the City for comment. A preliminary response from City of Kingston Communications suggested reaching out to KFL&A Public Health, as “their agency is the lead on any outbreaks or cases confirmed and they would have more details.”

Later in the day Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, the City followed up with more contextual details being provided by the public works department. They indicated that “it appears this service request happened on Feb. 8, which was before we received any confirmation of avian influenza from Public Health. The City does get daily calls to remove all kinds of deceased wildlife, and this was considered a normal call for service. Workers are equipped with protective gear, including clothing, gloves, and masks, to use if necessary. When called for service, workers use shovels and rakes provided to them to move the carcasses. They would not be touching any wildlife with their bare hands.”

On Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, KFL&A Public Health confirmed that avian influenza was detected in dead Canada geese that were found along the Lake Ontario Park waterfront. It should be noted, however, that the City had been actively capturing and/or collection ill or deceased geese in the area since at least Friday, Feb. 2, 2024.

They explained that avian influenza infects wild birds such as geese, ducks, and shore birds, and can infect domestic poultry.

“The risk of transmission to humans is low as the virus does not typically pass from birds to humans,” they noted, but still recommended people “avoid contact with sick or dead wild or domestic birds.”

KFL&A Public Health urges everyone to protect themselves, their pets, and domestic birds, stating:

  • Do not handle or feed wild birds.
  • Ensure pets are kept away from sick or dead birds or animals.
  • Avoid contact with surfaces that appear to be contaminated with feces from wild birds.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after unavoidable contact with birds or their droppings.
  • Protect backyard flocks from contact with wild birds.

As another layer of protection, KFL&A Public Health recommends that all area residents get their annual flu shot. Although the seasonal influenza vaccine does not prevent infection with avian flu viruses, it can reduce the risk of getting sick with human and avian flu viruses at the same time.

“If handling sick or dead wild birds is unavoidable,” the Public Health Agency of Canada recommends “wearing gloves and avoiding contact with blood, body fluids, and feces. Hands should be washed thoroughly with soap and warm water, or use hand sanitizer containing at least 60 per cent alcohol.”

Ironically, KFL&A Public Health advises residents who find dead birds on private property to do just as Dugan did: consult the municipality and “[report] to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative using their online reporting tool or by calling 1-866-673-4781.”

Visit the KFL&A Public Health website for more information on avian influenza, as well as more detailed instructions on what residents should do if they discover dead birds.

Additional information about avian influenza in humans can be found on the Ontario Ministry of Health website.

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