Bird Flu and You

Frequently Asked Questions

Most of us have heard or read about avian influenza (also called avian flu and bird flu) and its impacts on domestic poultry and some wild birds (ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds, corvids, and raptors). We have reviewed many sources of information, some of which are listed below. Following are some answers to the most commonly asked questions.

Guidance from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (updated November 2022)

What to do if you find a sick or dead wild bird or animal

  • Do not touch or handle any sick bird or other wild animal and do not attempt to transport them to a veterinarian or your own property for treatment. Moving sick animals can spread the virus to areas where it wasn’t before.
  • Use this online form to report sick/dead wild birds suspected of having avian influenza to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.
  • Report sick/dead domestic birds to Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Avian Health Program: 1-800-606-3056 or visit Avian Influenza | Washington State Department of Agriculture for more information about how to protect backyard flocks
  • Keep an eye on pets to ensure they do not come in contact with dead or sick animals that may have been exposed to HPAI.
  • If you need to move a dead animal to keep your pet away from it, wear disposable gloves, double-bag the animal, and push it deep into the trash to keep scavengers away from it. 
  • Bird hunters should follow standard safety steps, including not disposing of carcasses in the field. Double-bag the animal and put it in the trash.
What is the Severity of Avian Flu in Birds?

From WDFW:
Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, refers to the disease caused by infection with avian (bird) influenza (flu) Type A viruses. These viruses occur naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect poultry and other bird and animal species. Wild aquatic birds include ducks, geese, swans, gulls and terns, and shorebirds. 

Avian influenza A viruses are contagious among birds through saliva, nasal secretions, feces, and contaminated surfaces. They are classified into two categories: low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) and highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). LPAI viruses cause either no signs of disease or mild disease while HPAI can sicken and kill domesticated birds such as chickens, ducks, and turkey. (Note: HPAI can also kill wild birds, including ducks, geese, swans, and raptors.)

The highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses (HPAI) cause high mortality in infected birds, sometimes up to 100 %.  All other virus subtypes cause a much milder, primarily respiratory, disease. 

Is Avian Flu a New Type of Flu?

No, avian influenza was first identified more than 100 years ago during an outbreak in Italy. Since then, the disease has cropped up at irregular intervals in all regions of the world.  In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains updated information on the latest situation

Current H5N1 bird flu viruses were first identified in Europe during the fall of 2020 and spread across Europe and into Africa, the Middle East and Asia, becoming the predominant subtype globally by fall of 2021.

Avian influenza viruses infect chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl, as well as a wide variety of wild birds, including shorebirds, raptors, and gulls. Migratory waterfowl – most notably wild ducks – are the natural reservoir hosts of avian influenza viruses, and these birds are also the most resistant to infection.

The avian influenza viruses belong to the type A influenza virus, of which there are many different subtypes. These subtypes differ because of certain proteins on the surface of the virus (hemagglutinin [HA] and neuraminidase [NA] proteins). There are 16 different HA subtypes and 9 different NA subtypes. Many different combinations of HA and NA proteins are possible. Each combination is a different subtype. All subtypes of influenza type A viruses can be found in birds. However, when we talk about “bird flu” viruses, we are referring to those subtypes that continue to occur mainly in birds. They do not usually infect humans, even though they can and sometimes do. When we talk about “human flu viruses” we are referring to those subtypes that occur widely in humans. There are only three known subtypes of human influenza viruses (H1N1, H2N2, and H3N1).

Get more detailed information on avian influenza viruses and how they change over time.

How is Avian Influenza Spread?
The avian influenza viruses behave quite differently in birds than in mammals. In birds the viruses propagate in both the intestinal and respiratory tracts. The viruses are primarily shed in the feces, but also in saliva and nasal secretions. The principal mode of transmission among birds is therefore fecal-to-oral via contaminated food and water. Avian influenza viruses can remain viable at moderate temperatures for long periods in the environment and can survive indefinitely in frozen material. In mammals (humans, pigs, horses) influenza virus infection is usually restricted to the respiratory tract, and the symptoms for uncomplicated influenza illness are constitutional and respiratory signs. This may be complicated by secondary bacterial infection, especially in the elderly, young children and individuals with compromised immune systems, resulting in severe, life-threatening pneumonia. In the recent epidemic of avian H5N1 influenza in Southeast Asia, examples of intestinal and central nervous system symptoms have also been recorded in human patients.
Can Birds Be Infected at Bird Feeders?

Theoretically yes, because of the fecal route of excretion of the virus and its ability to stay viable and infectious at low temperatures – usually the very time of year when we are most diligent about feeding our backyard birds. However, with passerines being the most common visitors to bird feeders, and the frequency of infection in these species being very low indeed, the risk may safely be considered remote.

Of much more concern are other easily transmitted infections such as salmonellosis (a bacterial infection), avian pox, and various fungal infections. It is important, therefore, to clean feeders frequently and disinfect them with a 10% bleach solution at least once a month. 

Are Possibly-Infected Wild Birds a Danger to Humans?
There is evidence from the ongoing avian influenza epidemic in Southeast Asia that humans might have become infected by swimming in waters contaminated with fecal material from ducks and geese. Also, people working in environments with high concentrations of infected poultry — farms and live-bird markets, for example — have been infected through exposure to high concentrations of virus-containing fomites. However, in general, the host-range barrier of the influenza viruses is such that avian influenza viruses do not replicate well in mammals, including pigs, horses and humans. Likewise human influenza viruses do not grow well in birds.
Can Avian Flu be Transmitted from One Person to Another?
Until recently, this was not known to occur. However, several instances of likely transmission have now been documented in the ongoing avian influenza epidemic in Southeast Asia.  Of greater concern is the possibility that the viruses, through repeated contact, become “adapted” to humans. The most dangerous scenario would be that of a human becoming simultaneously infected with avian and human influenza viruses. This would allow the two viruses to exchange genetic material, thereby “humanizing” the avian influenza virus. Such an event could lead to unprecedented virulence and pandemicity. To date this has not happened in the ongoing epidemics in Southeast Asia, but the World Health Organization (WHO) and national health organizations, including the USA Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are constantly vigilant to the possibility and are monitoring the situation closely. For further information refer to their websites, listed below.
Should I Be Cautious if I Encounter a Dead Bird?

Yes, but not necessarily because of avian flu. The vast majority of birds that are found dead have died of causes other than diseases communicable to humans. If you need to move a dead bird, use precautions such as wearing gloves or using a long-handled shovel or other tool to move the bird. If you need to handle the bird, bag it tightly. 

If you suspect a bird died of illness: report to WDFW using this link

If you suspect a bird died from colliding with a window: report to

Where Can I Get More Information About Avian Flu?
There are numerous Avian Flu information sites:

For information specifically relevant to the influenza situation in the USA, refer to the CDC website and links listed there. From October through May, surveillance information is updated each week, and can be found on the Flu Activity Page of the CDC website. The site also includes international surveillance data of relevance to those intending to travel. In addition, periodic updates regarding influenza are published in the MMWR Weekly.

Watch the video for an overview on Avian Flu.