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Minnesota's busiest wildlife rehabber will stop admitting and treating bird species that are susceptible to the H5N1 avian flu.

The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota announced the temporary policy change over the weekend, calling it a "grave decision" the organization will reevaluate once the  Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) "has run its course."

This means that, for the time being, the rehab center will not take in:

  • Any ducks or diving birds
  • Geese
  • Pelicans
  • Raptors (including hawks, eagles, vultures and owls)
  • Gulls
  • Tundra swans
  • Great blue herons

"As you can imagine, this is not a decision made lightly," said WRC's communications director Tami Vogel on a Minnesota birding message board. "We are so sad to see HPAI moving through the wild populations this time around."

WRC will still euthanize any of these birds during normal operating hours, but there are specific safety protocols in place to ensure the virus doesn't get inside the building. You can read about the policy here. Raptors can be brought to the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center.

USDA emergency response activated

This most recent strain of avian influenza, highly contagious and almost always fatal, is slowly spreading across the country. The Minnesota Board of Animal Health confirmed the state's first H5N1 cases over the weekend, in poultry flocks in Meeker and Mower Counties. Minnesota is the leading turkey producer in the nation.

The presence of the illness prompted the activation of a USDA emergency response team, Gov. Tim Walz's office announced Monday, which will provide support to the state-run Agricultural Incident Management Team.

"These federal partners will bring targeted expertise to contain this virus and ensure that our state’s poultry industry remains the strongest in the nation," Walz said.

But it's not just poultry farmers who are impacted. Certain wild bird species are also at risk.

As the Raptor Center explains, waterfowl and shorebirds often carry avian influenza without showing many symptoms, allowing them to easily spread it to other species. That includes raptors and scavengers, who can pick up the virus and become quite sick after eating sick waterfowl.

The virus is airborne, but can also spread through nasal and eye secretions, and manure. 

This makes rehabbing a potentially infected bird quite complicated. There's no way to quickly test to see if an animal has the virus, nor can the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center quarantine individual birds in separate, filtered rooms

"Unfortunately there is no way for us to safely treat them, and quarantining them is not an option due to scale (you cannot "quarantine" birds together)," Vogel wrote in the message board post. "Keeping the virus out of the building will hopefully prevent us from being closed by an agency for 3-6 weeks and/or having to cull other avian patients."

WRC said it hopes the virus will be quelled by mid-June so it can revisit the policy. The rehab center admitted more than 19,200 animals in 2021, encompassing about 200 different species. 

No human cases of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) have been detected in the U.S., and the Centers of Disease Control says there is low risk to the public. It's also not believed to significantly impact songbirds.

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