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‘Tens of thousands’ of Florida bird flu cases now include sandhill cranes, white pelicans

The virus has infected wild birds across 35 Florida counties since January 2022, according to wildlife officials
Pictured are American white pelicans, one of the affected species. The news of two new infected species this week underscores bird flu’s widening reach.
Pictured are American white pelicans, one of the affected species. The news of two new infected species this week underscores bird flu’s widening reach. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 24|Updated Jan. 24

Florida’s unprecedented outbreak of a highly infectious bird flu strain among wild birds has spread to two more iconic species: sandhill cranes and American white pelicans, wildlife officials confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday.

The birds are the latest additions to a growing list of well-known species — including bald eagles and great horned owls — confirmed to have contracted highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI.

The virus is now confirmed in 35 counties and has circulated among 34 wild birds species in Florida, the St. Petersburg-based Fish and Wildlife Research Institute said.

“We have likely lost tens of thousands of our native birds in the past year,” Institute spokesperson Carly Jones said in a statement to the Times. “Although things do not currently seem to be as severe as this time last year, when the virus first hit Florida, we continue to see mortalities across many bird species.”

A sandhill crane searches for food in a field off Lutz Lake Fern Road on Monday in Odessa. Bird flu has been confirmed for the first time in white pelicans and sandhill cranes.
A sandhill crane searches for food in a field off Lutz Lake Fern Road on Monday in Odessa. Bird flu has been confirmed for the first time in white pelicans and sandhill cranes. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Biologists first detected the virus in January 2022, when hunters in Palm Beach County turned over two ducks, just shot and killed, for routine disease testing at a checkpoint hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The pair of blue-winged teal ducks were the first two animals in the state to test positive.

The news of two new infected species this week underscores bird flu’s widening reach: Sandhill cranes, with their recognizable reddish heads and squawking bugle calls, are a state-designated threatened species. White pelicans are winter visitors, traveling from as far away as western Canada.

Researchers at the University of Florida first reported the sandhill crane infection to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services earlier this month, Jones said. The bird was found on a private property in Gainesville during the week of Jan. 9.

In late November, two white pelicans were found just offshore of Cedar Key, Jones said. One was dead and the other was sick and brought to a rehabilitation facility. The rehabber killed the bird based on ongoing bird flu protocols. State wildlife officials received the official test results on Dec. 27.

“Every one of the white pelicans here in Florida has flown 2,500 miles to spend winter in a safe place. And now they catch this deadly disease. It’s quite sad,” said Ann Paul, president of the Tampa Audubon Society.

One year since first infection

The epicenter of the outbreak first emerged along Florida’s Atlantic Coast in early February, as hundreds of lesser scaup ducks, a common North American diving duck with a black head, started showing signs of neurological distress. But recently, cases in black vultures have spiked in Florida, Mark Cunningham, a fish and wildlife health subsection leader for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told the Times in November.

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Infected birds can spread the virus through saliva, nasal secretions and feces, according to the commission. An infected black vulture will often return to its roost before it dies. Then other vultures will feed on the infected carcass, spreading the disease further, Cunningham said.

As of November, at least 21 backyard flocks across 11 Florida counties had been confirmed with bird flu, according to data provided by Madeline Brezin of Florida’s Department of Agriculture. That includes two flocks in Hillsborough County and one in Pasco. The infected birds were mostly chickens, but there were also domestic ducks, geese, peafowl and guineas.

No commercial poultry flocks in Florida have confirmed cases of bird flu, according to Scott Richardson, the poultry veterinary program manager of the agriculture department’s division of animal industry.

“As of today, there’s been none in commercial flocks,” Richardson said over the phone Tuesday. “Thank God.”

The best way to prevent the spread of bird flu from wild populations to backyard flocks is to “limit their exposure,” Richardson said. That includes keeping them under cover, with protections like fencing.

The wildlife commission also echoes this on a webpage devoted to the outbreak: “Do not let wild birds come into contact with domestic poultry and do not keep bird feeders in the vicinity of domestic poultry.” The backyard flock cases so far in Florida have come from infected wild birds, Richardson said.

American white pelicans, which migrate south in the winter months from as far north as Canada, are pictured at Crescent Lake Park, where a small number come every year. The recent outbreak of bird flu has been detected in this species.
American white pelicans, which migrate south in the winter months from as far north as Canada, are pictured at Crescent Lake Park, where a small number come every year. The recent outbreak of bird flu has been detected in this species. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

How to prevent bird flu

There is a “low risk” that bird flu spreads to humans, state wildlife experts say. In April, a human case was confirmed in Colorado after somebody became infected when handling poultry that was presumed to be carrying the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The person reported fatigue for several days before recovering.

The University of Florida announced in September that a bottlenose dolphin in Dixie County contracted bird flu in the first known case in a cetacean in America. It likely came into contact with an infected bird along Florida’s Gulf Coast, according to researchers.

Here are some ways to prevent bird flu, according to wildlife experts:

  • Clean your bird feeders and bird baths with a 10% bleach solution. That’s one part bleach mixed with nine parts water.
  • If you must handle a dead bird, follow how to remove them from the state’s bird flu guidance.
  • Keep bird feeders away from domestic poultry.
  • Report dead birds to the state.

“We ask the public not to handle sick or dead birds unless necessary,” Jones said. “However, we strongly encourage the reporting of all sightings of dead birds.”

The public can report sightings to the bird mortality database: If you see a dead bird, report it at https://app.myfwc.com/FWRI/AvianMortality/