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What to know about the avian flu outbreak in Utah

A duck and ducklings paddle in Adams Reservoir in Layton, Utah, June 25, 2022.
Kristine Weller
A duck and ducklings paddle in Adams Reservoir in Layton, Utah, June 25, 2022.

The avian influenza virus naturally occurs in wild birds. It is spread through nasal and oral discharges and fecal droppings. The latest U.S. outbreak was confirmed in January. Since then, 31 Utah animals with avian flu have been detected.

That includes wild birds from Cache, Weber, Salt Lake, Utah, Tooele and Carbon counties. Canada geese, great horned owls, hawks, pelicans, turkey vultures and ducks have tested positive. Two red foxes were also found with the virus.

Virginia Stout, the wildlife veterinarian for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the virus spreads easily.

“If you walk in an environment with avian influenza and walk somewhere else, you can actually carry it on your shoe with you to a new location,” Stout said.

Despite this, not all animals are affected the same. Waterbirds, like ducks and geese, are usually used to the avian flu, and Stout said they often survive. But predatory birds are more susceptible to dying.

However, people don’t need to be concerned about themselves.

“Since it is an influenza, it can be passed to humans. This strain seems to be pretty low risk for humans,” Stout said.

While the virus is prevalent in birds across the U.S., there has only been one confirmed human case in Colorado. Still, people should avoid touching dead birds and call their local DWR office instead.

Bird feeders also pose low risks of transmission. They are OK to leave up, Stout said, if there are no chickens or other birds at the home. That’s because domestic birds are more susceptible to the virus.

Bailee Woolstenhulme, with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said people with domestic chickens and other birds should be especially watchful for avian flu symptoms.

“If it is found on a farm or among a flock, the entire flock, unfortunately, has to be depopulated to control the spread,” she said.

Symptoms include nasal discharge, lack of appetite and high death rates. Birds should also be kept inside as much as possible and food and water sources shared with migratory birds should be removed.

Cases of the virus are low right now, but Woolstenhulme said they will go up again.

“The high infection rate happens during the migratory season, which is the spring and the fall. So while we’re seeing cases die down right now for the summertime, we do expect those cases to pick up in the fall.”

The DWR is continuing to monitor unusual wild bird deaths.

Kristine Weller is a newsroom intern at KUER. She’s only been a journalist for a year but is excited to see what the future holds.
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