Goose deaths indicate increase in highly pathogenic avian influenza in Kingston region

Healthy Canada geese enjoying the open water near the Napanee Falls. Photo by Jack Forestell.

After several reports of numerous dead Canada geese along the Kingston waterfront, the City of Kingston released a notice earlier today saying the City “is closely monitoring reports of sick birds following a recent investigation of deceased and distressed Canada geese at Lake Ontario Park and Elevator Bay along Front Road.”

Leah Birmingham, Assistant Director of the Sandy Pines Wildlife Centre (SWPC) in Napanee, confirmed SPWC volunteers have been assisting the City in capturing sick and distressed birds to bring them to the Centre for humane euthanasia to prevent their suffering and stop the spread of “highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).”

Birmingham, who is also a Wildlife Custodian and a professor at St. Lawrence College, shared that SPWC expects to see more cases from the Kingston outbreak. The good news is that people going about their normal business of walking their dog or visiting the park don’t have much to worry about — although she did acknowledge that she might choose to walk a dog elsewhere for the time being, simply because of the possible presence of injured or dead birds.

“As far as the average person taking their dog down to Lake Ontario Park for a walk, it is not probably something they need to fear. Would I be doing that? No. Knowing that birds are dying in that area, I probably would walk my dog somewhere else instead,” said Birmingham.

But, “the chances are pretty slim that a person or dog is actually going to be infected with the virus,” she emphasized.

“For humans, this flu only causes big problems for people who are poultry farmers. Anybody that has geese and waterbirds wants to be cautious about it. But it’s not the strongest virus as far as surviving on surfaces and can be killed fairly easily with bleach and/or peroxide-based disinfectant.” 

Birmingham said HPAI, also known as bird flu or avian flu, “has been a threat in Ontario forever, but the last two years in particular, we’ve been on somewhat high alert for it. We were fortunate when the initial outbreak happened; the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and the  Canadian Farm Inspection Agency were alerting everybody in 2022, saying it could be pretty devastating. There are places south of us in the [United] States that were having major outbreaks, and other places in Ontario… but we lucked out in our area during that period and didn’t have the high level that we’re starting to see right now.”

When wild birds have been infected with the disease, Birmingham explained, “they tend to be what we call ‘neurological.’ So, they can’t walk properly… or might be staring up at the sky or having difficulties holding their head up. For lack of a better description, they kind of look drunk.”

“If [a bird is observed] in distress and they’re sick, and they’re easily captured, then yes, we want them brought in [to SPWC],” Birmingham continued. “We humanely euthanize them so they’re not suffering and not infecting other birds. We have a system in place for that. Those birds don’t go into our main building; they they go to a separate building, and we’re using a lot of bio-security protocols to make sure that the disease is contained in that area and the bodies are disposed of properly.”

However, in some cases, the birds will recover and “they’ll be the ones with immunity, so we don’t want to… have all of them brought out to Napanee and get the viral load higher in this area,” she said, emphasizing that humans should only intervene if an animal appears to be in distress or suffering.

In such a case, she advises taking some precautions, such as wearing gloves, making sure to wash hands and clothes immediately after handling an animal, and safe hygiene in general.

“The incidence of avian flu getting into humans has been fairly low, and you’d have to be surrounded by a really high viral load. So picking up one bird? Probably not a high viral load. But having an outbreak on your farm? High viral load.”

Birmingham made sure to note what an excellent job the City has done in dealing effectively with the situation.

“We were really impressed with Kingston’s response yesterday. The City workers were right there to collect dead bodies and dispose of them properly. And that’s half the battle right there. Cleaning up these bodies and getting them out of there so they don’t infect others and just keeping the area clean and safe is really important,” she explained. 

“So we hope that other municipalities in the area will follow Kingston’s lead, and help when the public reports these incidences of an outbreak… by cleaning up the carcasses and keeping the area as safe as possible.”

Colorized transmission electron micrograph of Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) grown in MDCK cells (seen in green). Photo via the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) courtesy of Cynthia Goldsmith.

According to the Canadian Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MECC), many avian influenza viruses (AIVs) occur naturally in wild birds and circulate in migratory populations without causing widespread disease. H5N1, a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAIV) which originally evolved in domestic birds in 1996, is now circulating widely in Canada and many parts of the world. An AIV is designated highly pathogenic when it has characteristics that cause mass disease and mortality in infected poultry. The current strain is also causing widespread mortality in wild birds and occasionally in wild and domestic mammals.

The H5N1 HPAI has caused an unprecedented global outbreak in its size and duration. First reported in Canada in December 2021, the virus has since been detected in wild birds in every province and territory, according to MECC.

There have been no human cases of avian influenza resulting from exposure to wild birds in North America, MECC assures, and human infections with avian influenza are rare and almost always acquired through sustained close contact with infected live or dead poultry or contaminated facilities. However, anyone in close contact with infected birds and their environments may be at increased risk of infection. Refer to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for handling guidelines.

Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) Public Health advises the public to follow the advice set out in the City of Kingston’s earlier notice should they come across a sick, injured, or dead wild bird.

“Local instances of distressed and deceased birds are reported to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC). Until the test results are confirmed, please refer to the City of Kingston media release for information and contacts. We will ensure the community is kept informed,” KFL&A Public Health said.

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