Bird flu: How to spot it and what to do

Wild bird species involved are mostly geese, ducks and swans, but a number of birds of prey have also been confirmed to have died.

Football playing chickens
Football playing chickens

The current outbreak of bird flu in the UK has been described as the “largest-ever”.

But what should you know about avian influenza?

- What is bird flu and how is it transmitted?

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said wild birds migrating to the UK from mainland Europe during the winter months can carry the disease and this can lead to cases in poultry and other captive birds.

Cabinet Meeting
Environment Secretary George Eustice described the current outbreak as the “largest-ever” (Aaron Chown/PA)

Birds can be infected with the avian influenza virus through contact with infected individual birds or waste products. Wild birds including waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese) can carry and transmit the virus without showing evidence of disease, according to Paul Walton, head of habitats and species at RSPB Scotland.

- How do you spot bird flu?

There are two types of avian influenza, with Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) being the more serious type. It is often fatal in birds.

Some of the clinical signs of HPAI in birds include sudden and rapid increase in the number of birds found dead, several birds affected in the same shed or air space, a swollen head, closed and excessively watery eyes, head and body tremoring, drooping of the wings and/or dragging of legs, twisting of the head and neck and swelling and blue discolouration of comb and wattles.

Football playing chickens
Chickens at Leicestershire-based egg producer Sunrise Poultry Farms playing with a football while they are stuck indoors during the bird flu lockdown (Sunrise Poultry Farms Limited/PA)

Other signs include haemorrhages on shanks of the legs and under the skin of the neck, loss of appetite or marked decrease in feed consumption, sudden increase or decrease in water consumption, respiratory distress, sneezing, noticeable increase in body temperature, discoloured or loose watery droppings, and cessation or marked reduction in egg production.

- What measures are in place?

An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone was declared across the UK on November 3 before being extended on November 29 with the added requirement all captive birds have to be kept indoors.

Defra said poultry and captive bird keepers are advised to be vigilant for any signs of disease in their birds and any wild birds, and to seek prompt advice from a vet if they have any concerns.

- What is the risk to the public?

The risk to human health from the virus is very low and food standards bodies advise that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for UK consumers, Defra said.

People are advised not to touch or pick up any dead or sick birds that they find and instead report them to the relevant helpline.

Spring weather May 23rd 2021
Swans with their cygnets in Bushy Park in London in May (John Walton/PA)

Defra said there is no impact on the consumption of properly cooked poultry products including eggs.

- Is it still okay to feed birds in your garden?

The RSPB said everyone should take care to maintain good hygiene when feeding garden birds, and also recommended “regularly cleaning feeders outside with mild disinfectant, removing old bird food, spacing out feeders as much as possible, and washing your hands”.

UK chief veterinary officer Christine Middlemiss said people who keep chickens and want to feed wild birds need to make sure everything is kept “scrupulously clean” and “absolutely separate” to avoid infecting their own flocks.

- What should you do if you see a sick or injured bird?

The RSPB said if people find any dead waterfowl, any gulls or birds of prey or five or more of any other species in one place, they should report them to the Defra helpline on 03459 335577 or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840.

- Will the outbreak have any impact on the availability of turkeys at Christmas?

Supplies of turkeys or other birds over Christmas are not expected to be affected by the outbreak.

More than 15 million turkeys are produced in the UK every year so the number in relative terms that are affected is very small and it is unlikely to affect the overall supply of Christmas turkeys.

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