Animal Welfare

The Avian Flu Has Killed Millions of Birds This Year. Texas Just Recorded Its First Case in a Wild Bird.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants people to report birds exhibiting symptoms.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants people to report birds exhibiting symptoms. Shpernik088 / Wikimedia Commons
When Eric Folkerth, a senior pastor at Kessler Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, caught wind that a highly pathogenic avian influenza was going around the U.S., he brought in four large bird feeders he had around his home.

With the avian flu this year running rampant among bird populations in the U.S., killing millions, Folkerth said he heard reports that bringing his feeders inside could help prevent the spread.

“This is the first time I’ve been aware of this bird flu going around and the anxiety about it,” he said by phone. He’s hoping for some official guidance soon on whether he can put his feeders back out.

As of April 20, more than 32 million birds across the country have been hit with this year’s strain of the avian influenza, according to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Now, the first case has been detected in a wild bird in Texas. After a great horned owl at a rehab facility in Wichita County started showing symptoms of the flu, the National Veterinary Services Laboratory reported it to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. This follows the detection of the flu in a commercial pheasant flock in Erath County early last month.

The flu is highly contagious, according to Texas wildlife officials, and can easily spread among wild and domestic birds alike. So far, it’s been detected in 38 states across the U.S. While birds may not always exhibit symptoms, they risk diarrhea, incoordination, lethargy, coughing and sneezing, as well as sudden death. The virus can spread in several ways, including contact with an infected bird population, or contamination of equipment, clothing or of bird handlers themselves. 

“Right now, given the distance between this new case and the zoo, we will not immediately change our plans." – Dallas Zoo

tweet this
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recommend that facilities with wild or domestic bird populations beef up their biosecurity measures to reduce the risk of transmission. People should also limit their contact with wild birds. Wildlife professionals who take in birds should also look for symptoms and consider quarantining them to limit exposure.

While the risk of transmission to humans remains low, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says people should wear gloves and masks and wash their hands if contact with wild birds can’t be avoided. If you come in contact with a bird showing symptoms, the department says you should contact them or the Texas Animal Health Commission Region Office.

After the first case in a Texas commercial bird population was detected in early April, the Dallas Zoo took most of its birds off display. That first case was within 100 miles of the zoo. “We are taking every precaution to keep our birds safe and healthy,” the Dallas Zoo said on its Facebook page on April 4. “For that reason, many of our birds will remain behind the scenes, away from their public-facing habitats until the threat has passed, including African penguins, flamingos and more.”

The Forest Aviary and Birds Landing exhibits were also closed to the public.

The zoo said it was following recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prevent the spread of the virus. By the end of the month, the Dallas Zoo was bringing back some of its birds to their front-facing exhibits for attendees to see. Because there weren’t any new cases reported within a 100-mile radius of the zoo, it felt the threat had passed.

“Penguins are in their pool, and our Wings of Wonder habitats are filling up again,” the zoo said on April 29. “We will slowly bring additional bird species back out into open-air areas in the weeks to come, as long as the [highly pathogenic avian influenza] situation remains stable.”

Just the day before the zoo announced some of the exhibits would be returning, the first human case of the avian flu was reported in a Colorado man. The infected person was working at a commercial farm.

The Dallas Zoo told the Observer Thursday that it was aware of the Wichita County case and would “remain vigilant about monitoring the situation.” But they said that there aren’t plans yet to reel in any of the bird exhibits, largely because the latest Texas case is outside the 100 mile radius the zoo was worried about.

“Right now, given the distance between this new case and the zoo, we will not immediately change our plans,” the zoo said in an emailed statement. “Birds that have been moved back into their open-air habitats will remain there, but we will not hesitate to move birds off habitat if the situation evolves. All of our safety and security policies for staff and volunteers, including biosecurity measures and screening questions for anyone who comes into contact with birds, remain in place.”
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn