Wild ducks infected with the highly pathogenic Eurasian H5 avian influenza (HPAI) virus have been discovered in North Carolina and South Carolina. It’s the first time that HPAI has been found in wild birds in the United State since 2016, according to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The first bird confirmed positive with the disease was a shoveler that was killed by a hunter in Hyde County, North Carolina, in December. Biologists discovered the infection while conducting routine disease surveillance checks. The second infected bird was a widgeon killed by a hunter in Colleton County, South Carolina, in January 2022.

The USDA collaborates with state wildlife agencies to conduct disease surveys of live and hunter-harvested birds. A swab sample is typically obtained from a bird’s throat or cloaca and tested for diseases. The species that are most frequently tested are those most likely to be exposed to avian influenza viruses. Collections are obtained during hunting seasons at check stations or other areas where hunters gather, as well as in locations where waterfowl stage during migration and for the winter. Local officials are asking the public to keep an eye out for sick birds.

“If someone comes across a mortality event involving five or more waterbirds or waterfowl, or a mortality event of any size for raptors or avian scavengers, including crows, ravens, and gulls, we want to know about them,” said Joe Fuller, a wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission. “We are also interested in morbidity events involving any number of those same bird species that are observed with clinical signs consistent with neurological impairment, like swimming in circles, head tilt, and lack of coordination.”

Avian flu viruses are found worldwide and classified in two categories: HPA, and Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza. The diseases are categorized “based on molecular characteristics and their ability to cause disease and mortality in chickens in a laboratory setting,” according to the CDC. Because bird flu can spread rapidly in wild and domestic birds, biologists are always on the lookout for it. Waterfowl and other birds may be infected but not exhibit symptoms but can still spread the disease via oral discharge or fecal matter. The APHIS advises those in the areas where the recent infections where confirmed who are “involved with poultry production from the small backyard to the large commercial producer should review their biosecurity activities to assure the health of their birds.”

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Officials say that HPAI is considered low risk to humans but still recommends that hunters take the following precautions:

  • Do not harvest or handle wild birds that are obviously sick or found dead.
  • Wear rubber gloves when handling birds, cleaning game, or cleaning bird feeders.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while cleaning game.
  • Dress your game birds in the field whenever possible. If you must dress your birds at home, clean them in an area separate from your poultry and pet birds.
  • Double bag the inedible parts of the bird and feathers. Tie the inner bag. Remove your gloves and put them in the outer bag before tying it closed.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water immediately after handling game or cleaning bird feeders. If soap and water are not available, use alcohol wipes.
  • Wash all tools and work surfaces with soap and water. Then, disinfect them.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. Keep uncooked game in a separate container away from cooked or ready-to-eat foods.
  • Cook game meat thoroughly. Poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit to kill disease organisms and parasites.