Since late April, six eagles have tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza, or “bird flu” in Sitka. But only one of those cases was discovered in the last five weeks.
Jennifer Cedarleaf is the avian director at the Alaska Raptor Center. She says the most recent eagle that tested positive was found around June 10, but it takes a couple of weeks to get results.
“It wasn’t acting like the other birds that we’d seen had acted.” Cedarleaf says. And when we picked it up and felt how thin it was, we thought, ‘Oh, it’s just a skinny bird. But we’ll test it anyway.'”
Cedarleaf says that the eagle’s sample came back positive last Friday (6-24-22).
She says they’ve tested every bird they’ve picked up over the last couple of months– from ravens and crows to pigeons and robins, but so far they’ve only found the virus in eagles. After three weeks with no reported cases (prior to the discovery of the sixth case), the center began allowing its eagles some time outside again.
“It’s hard to keep them inside because, especially, they’re used to having this big space. And it’s been so nice out that it’s just about breaking our hearts to keep them locked in,” Cedarleaf says. “So we decided to keep letting them out during the day and then they go back in their covered area at night.” She says fewer wild birds frequent the area during the day when tourists are visiting the center.
Cedarleaf hopes that cases are on the decline locally. One thing she thinks could be helping? The unexpected heat wave hitting Southeast Alaska this week, and the dearth of rainy days this spring.
“UV light is really good at killing this virus. And because we’re in the part of the year where we’ve had a lot of sunlight during the day, and we’ve actually had sunlight. I think that’s really helping that the weather has been so nice this year so far,” Cedarleaf says. “Knock on wood. I hope it stays that way. But it really seems to help.”
The center is still open for visitation. And while they’re not currently accepting outside birds for rehabilitation, Cedarleaf says they may reassess in July and open their clinic back up. She’s asking that Sitkans continue to report dead birds or birds that are behaving strangely to the center, including domestic chickens. If you encounter a sick or injured bird, you can call their emergency phone line at 907-738-8662 for support.