Dealing with Avian Influenza in the Wildlife Hospital

Dealing with Avian Influenza in the Wildlife Hospital

Watch our team weigh and test one of 12 newly-admitted Mallard ducklings in the video above!

You may be wondering about the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (AKA “Bird Flu” or HPAI) outbreak, whether the virus is still with us, and whether or not you need to be concerned about it.

The short answer is: yes.

The Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza virus (also known as avian influenza or "bird flu" was first detected in California last summer.

With its detection in the state, WildCare implemented new HPAI biosecurity protocols, including closing our courtyard and museum to the public. We started testing suspect cases, and received the first positive result (for a Canada Goose patient) in October 2022.

Unfortunately, cases have not slowed down and we are seeing more confirmed and suspected cases in more species, coming from all over the Bay Area and throughout the state.

These ducklings were orphaned when their mother was hit by a car. Upon their arrival at WildCare, they were placed in a HPAI quarantine ward, as Mallard Ducks are highly-susceptible to the virus, but might not show symptoms. Each duckling must get a negative test for the HPAI virus before these little ones can enter the main Wildlife Hospital to grow up in care. Once they are old enough, they will be released back to the wild.

As part of the new HPAI intake process, our team must weigh each duckling and take swabs of each little bird's mouth and cloaca. The swabs are packaged and sent via overnight shipping to the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab in Davis, CA, where a PCR test can determine whether the birds are infected with HPAI.

The group of ducklings will stay in an incubator in the outdoor quarantine ward until they receive a negative result for the HPAI test, usually in two or three days.

Then we will move them into our clinic's Ward A, where WildCare volunteers will set them up in a warm brooder.

This process must happen for each at-risk bird, or group of birds, that comes in that day. Our quarantine wards can fill up quickly while awaiting results, and this whole process complicates patient intake significantly.

WildCare admits an average of 3,500 wildlife patients every year, and over 80% of them arrive at our doors between April and August. 

Finding a way to quarantine HPAI-susceptible species in the rush of spring and summer's wildlife baby season has required a lot of planning, ingenuity, and repurposing of our Courtyard. There has been no evidence of infection between patients inside our Wildlife Hospital, which means our containment efforts onsite are working, but dealing with this incredibly contagious (between birds) virus has required a massive overhaul of hospital operations, and the implementation of complex quarantine and testing protocols.

As you can see in the photos above, the former homes of our Wildlife Ambassador animals (who have been moved to protective caging to prevent their exposure to the HPAI virus) have been transformed into shielded quarantine wards for incoming wildlife patients. WildCare's Medical Staff has worked tirelessly to set up new protocols that will allow the same high quality of care for all of our patients, while also preventing the spread of the virus. As we all know from COVID, that's a tall order!

The use of PCR swab tests (and personal protective equipment, including surgical gowns, gloves, and masks for each individual patient or group of patients,) along with our new triage tent and outdoor wards, will allow us to continue taking patients across all species through baby season and beyond.

Learn more about HPAI and how you can prevent its spread here.

And please consider a donation to WildCare to help us meet the needs of all or our wildlife patients, along with the added expenses of HPAI quarantines and testing!

Watch us test this baby Great Horned Owl for exposure to the HPAI virus!

This baby Great Horned Owl was the first wildlife patient we tested using our new protocols and the PCR test. He was admitted to WildCare after his nest tree fell down in a storm. The avian influenza virus is deadly to owls, so our team needed to test this owlet for exposure to the virus. You can see that process in the video above. The twittering and clacking noises in the background are the owlet expressing his displeasure at the process... but after the swabs are completed, the young owl is distracted by a tasty meal.

Fortunately his test was negative, so he has gone into foster care with a nonreleaseable Great Horned Owl at one of our sister wildlife care centers. He will grow up with his foster parent, and we will release him once he's old enough to return to the wild.