Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever have received member inquires over the past several weeks regarding the current avian influenza outbreak in the United States
“How will it affect fall populations?” “How susceptible are pheasants and quail to the disease?” “Does Pheasants Forever or Quail Forever have a role to play?”
All great questions, but unfortunately, there is little known about the disease regarding its impacts on wild upland bird populations in the United States. The role of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever is simple: keep delivering our mission of wildlife habitat conservation (remember, we’re a habitat conservation group, not the CDC). If our wild bird populations do become infected, we’re going to need quality habitat – and lots of it – to help populations recover.
Here’s what we can tell you:
The current avian influenza outbreak in the United States has affected over 35 million birds, the vast majority of which have been in commercial poultry operations. Over 240 individual outbreaks have been recorded in 29 states since January 2022, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The risk for human transmission remains low, as the CDC has only recorded one non-fatal case in Colorado.
The risk to wild birds is variable. As of May 1, there have been 899 confirmed cases in wild birds nationwide. Migrating waterfowl are often the culprits of transmission state-to-state, and their close proximity to one another also makes them much more susceptible. Of the confirmed cases in wild birds, snow geese are far and away the most common, followed by Canada geese.
The more local and slightly more solitary lifestyles of upland birds can mean lower rates of transmission for disease, including avian influenza. But this is only the case when a population has the room it needs to spread out, which makes adequate habitat all the more imperative in the uplands.
“Just like other causes of mortality – disease, severe weather, predation – the solution continues to be adding habitat,” said Ron Leathers, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s chief conservation officer. “More habitat means more dispersed populations and lower susceptibility. More habitat means faster population recovery. And more habitat means less interaction with domestic livestock.”
There have been three reported cases of wild pheasant deaths in the U.S., and no confirmed cases of any species of grouse or quail. Even so, scientists are closely monitoring the potential impact of this disease on upland birds. Dr. Dwayne Elmore is the wildlife management chair in the department of natural resource ecology and management at Oklahoma State University. He said it’s still too soon to know for sure how much this outbreak will affect upland populations.
“This is a novel disease and we really don't have any idea how susceptible game birds are to it, and we certainly don't know how it will affect their population,” he said. “We could use past bird flu perhaps as an indication, but that is extremely risky as influenzas are highly variable. So almost anything we say on this subject would be conjecture at this point relative to quail or pheasant.”
Even if the risk to wild upland birds does remain low, bird hunters could feel the effects of avian influenza this summer. Pen raised birds, from mallards to chucker, are highly susceptible to avian influenza, and localized outbreaks might reduce the availability of birds for dog training and hunt tests.
Scott Meyer is the director of operations at Oakwood game farms in Princeton, Minn. He supplies game birds to individual trainers as well as hunt test organizations like NAVDA. His facility has not been directly impacted by the current outbreak, but they’re preparing for the possibility.
Most game farms, and commercial poultry operations, have bio-security plans in place to protect against pests, disease and other contaminants. These plans include safety measures like reducing visitors to farms, providing disposable boots covers to anyone entering an enclosure, disinfecting tools and equipment that come into contact with birds and changing clothes after leaving an enclosure. Meyer said these precautions should also be front-of-mind for buyers.
“We’d like to get these rules across to any dog trainers who are buying birds,” he said. “Our protocols are what keep the birds healthy and allows folks to have birds available for training.”
Meyer recommends the following steps for trainers using pen-raised birds:
Clean your crates – This is the most important step trainers can take to prevent disease transmission. Any bird crates that are being used should be cleaned thoroughly on a regular basis.
Wash hands – Keep your hands clean after handling birds or bird crates, and change clothes when possible. Be aware of bird droppings or other residue on boots.
Dog free – If you’re going directly from the producer to the training field, don’t let your dog out of the car at the game farm.
No contact – Be cognizant of what you’re doing with pen-raised birds and where they’re being released, to minimize the possibility of contact with wild birds.
In addition to these steps, Meyer said trainers should also be generally respectful of any other bio-security measures at game farms.
“Follow the protocols of whatever producer you’re buying birds from. Please respect what they ask you to do,” he said. “That allows us to keep selling birds and allows you to keep buying them.”
Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at the Pheasants Forever national headquarters in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.