Avian flu suspected in death of 3 swans in Stratford, Ont. IG News

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Stratford, Ont., officials believe H5N1 avian influenza is behind the recent deaths of three of its most beloved mute swans.

The city’s parks, forestry and cemetery manager, Quinn Malott, said the first goose was found dead in the Avon River on Saturday, but his team didn’t connect the dots until two other swans fell ill the following days.

“We didn’t think much about it at the time because it was just a bird, and then on Sunday we saw another Monday looking a little dull, and they both died,” Malott said.

Malott said the pond that swans use is often used by wild ducks, and he believes the flu may have been brought on by one of them. Although trials are underway to confirm the swans’ cause of death, Malott said his local vet and avian pathologists at the University of Guelph believe avian flu is the most likely scenario.

Beth McDougall-Shackleton, a professor of biology at London’s Western University, said the deaths appeared to be a case of flu, which is particularly damaging to the birds that have been infected this year.

“Avian flu is always spreading among wild birds and domestic birds like human flu is always circulating among us, but it is a terrible disease, it is the pathogenic version of it,” she said.

Human activity, gatherings spread

McDougall-Shackleton said that a bird can get avian flu, including:

  • Not moving around much or reacting to human activities around you.
  • Trembling with tremors and loss of coordination.
  • In the final stages, they will be gasping for air, struggling to breathe.

McDougall-Shackleton said the disease is transmitted by direct physical contact with an infected bird, its feces or secretions, and spring and fall are prime seasons for flu.

“Whenever we have a lot of birds coming into close contact, especially if it’s birds of different species, we see a big spike in transmission.”

Mallott said the virus’s ability to spread rapidly is hard to control, and added that so far, it has not spread to any other goose.

“We have birds on the river that have all kinds of wild fowl around, so it could be a duck that’s a carrier, and the way it might interact with a goose that’s in an enclosed area with other swans Well, it’s going to spread quickly,” he said.

In this file photo a mute swan lands at Titicus Reservoir in Purdys, NY in 2014. Experts say that human contact through the collective feeding of birds may contribute to the spread of avian flu. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

McDougall-Shackleton said human contact with wild birds may seem harmless, but it may contribute to the spread of the flu because it encourages birds to gather together.

“As humans, what we do affects the behavior of everything around us, so if we set up massive feeding stations that attract migratory birds, or even That if you’re just feeding bread and encouraging them to gather around you, you’re bringing them into close contact.”

Mallott said Stratford residents have been cooperative when told about the dangers of mass bird feeding. Their staff will begin feeding swans indoors and are considering cordoning off the area to ensure entry of wild animals.

Although McDougall-Shackleton expects transmission to increase by the end of October before the migration season ends, she said there should be fewer cases after the birds migrate south.