Avian Influenza and Contaminants in Waterfowl
What Is It? Avian influenza is a naturally occurring virus. Type A viruses (referred to as avian influenza or “bird flu”) cause infection in birds, humans, and some other mammals, such as pigs. There are 144 identified subtypes (strains) of Type A influenza. Wild birds, especially shorebirds and waterfowl, are the natural host for all the known strains of Type A influenza viruses. Most strains of Type A influenza are low pathenogenic. Typically, wild birds do not become sick when they are infected with avian influenza A viruses, and humans are not affected either. Sometimes, however, the virus is introduced into a new host, such as domestic poultry, and evolves into a more lethal high pathenogenic (HPAI) strain.
In the winter of 2021-2022, a large number of HPAI cases were detected through the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways. HPAI was detected at five sites in Connecticut, and it is assumed that HPAI is widespread throughout the state The CT DEEP, CT Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Agriculture continue to conduct surveillance throughout the state on waterfowl and poultry. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is keeping track of 2022 Detections of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Wild Birds. If hunters observe dead waterfowl, particularly Canada geese which are very susceptible to the HPAI strains, or waterbirds, raptors, or large >5 mortality events, please report those on the DEEP website at DEEP's Wild Bird Mortality Database or by calling 860-424-3011.
Should hunters be concerned? The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), referred to in the media as bird flu, is not easily transmitted to animals other than birds. It has resulted in massive mortality in commercial turkeys and laying chickens in the western and midwestern U.S. Regardless of the fact that transmission has not occurred between wild birds and humans, hunters should take basic precautionary measures, if they do not already, when handling harvested waterfowl:
- Do not handle birds that are obviously sick or birds found dead.
- Keep your game birds cool, clean, and dry
- Do not eat, drink, or smoke while cleaning your birds.
- Use rubber gloves when cleaning game.
- Wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol wipes after dressing birds.
- Clean all tools and surfaces immediately afterward; use hot soapy water, then disinfect with a 10% chlorine bleach solution.
- Cook game meat thoroughly (165°F) to kill disease organisms.
For more information on avian influenza:
DEEP's Avian Influenza Webpage
Connecticut Department of Agriculture
Connecticut Department of Public Health
State of Connecticut Flu Watch
National Wildlife Health Center
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
World Health Organization
Contaminants in Waterfowl
Studies conducted in Pennsylvania and New York have shown that some samples from mergansers, especially common and red-breasted, had high levels of contaminants, including PCBs. Mergansers feed primarily on fish that may concentrate contaminants.
Other studies have shown that diving ducks (e.g., scaup, bufflehead, goldeneye) also may have high levels of contaminants; dabbling ducks (e.g., mallards, black ducks, teal, wigeon, gadwall) generally have lower levels; and wood ducks and Canada geese are the least contaminated.
Many sportsmen are aware of health advisories regarding high PCB concentrations in ducks from Massachusetts (Canada geese were not included in those advisories). Sportsmen and their families that want to minimize any potential exposure to contaminants should limit their consumption of mergansers and other waterfowl and remove the skin and fat before cooking. This consideration is especially important for pregnant women due to the effects of PCBs on reproduction.
Removing the skin from the breasts of waterfowl substantially reduces the amount of contaminants. If birds are stuffed, the stuffing should not be consumed. Drippings should not be used for gravy. If you would like more information regarding the health effects of PCBs, call the Connecticut Department of Public Health at 860-509-7742.
Content last updated in June 2022.