FAQs about avian flu
What is Bird Flu?
Its full title is Avian Influenza. It is a virus which causes a disease in birds, including poultry, pigeons and wild birds. Like other viruses, these are lots of different strains of the bird flu virus and these are given different names, such as H5N8, which was first recorded in 2016.
How does bird flu spread?
It is spread from bird to bird through contact with infected saliva or droppings. Wild birds are often more resistant to bird flu than domestic birds and can carry and spread the virus without showing symptoms.
This has led to speculation that wild birds are the main cause of bird flu spreading. But there are several ways by which the disease is spread. Globally the most significant has been the unrestricted movement of poultry and poultry products.*
*A study in 2007 into the spread of the H5N1 strain concluded that wild birds can contribute to the local spread of the virus in the wild. But it also found that human commercial activities, particularly those associated with poultry, are the major reason for its global dispersal.
Can bird flu affect people?
Very few strains of avian influenza have been recorded as infecting humans, and those which can transmit to humans don’t do so easily. The risk to public health during an outbreak is usually extremely low.
Direct contact with infected birds, their droppings, nasal secretions or saliva is usually required for the infection to spread to humans. The vast majority of the 668 human cases of H5N1 reported worldwide between 2003-2014 have resulted from close contact with infected domestic poultry.
Bird flu is not transmitted through properly cooked food. Cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat in areas where outbreaks have occurred.
Is it safe to feed the birds?
It is extremely unlikely that you would catch bird flu by feeding birds in your garden. But good hygiene at bird feeding stations is always sensible, both to protect the birds and ourselves.
Here’s our guide to keeping your feeders clean.
Always remember to wash your hands thoroughly after feeding ducks or other birds, or if you come into contact with bird droppings.
If you do find a sick or dead bird in your garden, do not touch it. If you find any dead waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese), any gulls or birds of prey or five or more of any other species in one place, you should report them to the Defra helpline (03459 335577) or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840.
What about birds nesting around my house and garden?
Gardens are really important places for our birds. The good news is risk to you from wild birds is so small there is no need to deter birds coming to your garden. It is also an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 to destroy a nest which is in use, being built or repaired.
To minimise the risk further, if you do see sick or dead birds, do not touch them, their droppings, or any water nearby and follow the bird feeder cleaning tips above.
As always, if you see a baby bird (fledgling) in your garden, leave it to its own devices. Its parents are almost certainly nearby and will look after it.
Is it safe to visit the countryside?
The UK Government has made it clear that in the event of an outbreak of bird flu the countryside does not need to be closed down.
If there is an outbreak at a domestic poultry farm or other premises, the UK Government launches a contingency plan to prevent further spread of infection. This involves the designation of special protection and surveillance zones around the outbreak site. This helps to contain the outbreak and there is no need to avoid visiting the wider countryside.
Culls of wild birds would be an inappropriate response to an outbreak. This would be indiscriminate and could make the situation worse by dispersing potentially infected individuals. Culling could also have an impact on wild bird populations.
How damaging is bird flu to our wild birds?
Since 2006 there have been several outbreaks of avian influenza in the UK, the vast majority of which have been on domestic poultry farms. There had been very few cases of the virus being detected in wild birds in the UK. But this has recently changed with an unprecedented series of outbreaks - the largest ever in the UK.
In January 2022 there was a severe outbreak on the Solway Firth, Scotland, where more than 4,000 barnacle geese died. These birds, which migrate from Svalbard in arctic Norway, were seen falling from the sky in distress and lines of dead birds were washed up on beaches.
In June 2022 there have been reports of widespread deaths of great skuas on Shetland, Fair Isle, Orkney, the Western Isles, Handa, the Flannan Isles and St Kilda. Gannets have been hit at some of their key colonies, including Noss in Shetland, Troup Head in Northeast Scotland and Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth.
There are also reports of sandwich and Arctic terns dying as well as numbers of guillemots at a colony on the Mull of Galloway.
What does this mean for our seabirds?
Britain's seabird populations are of global significance. For example, the UK is home to 56% of the world’s gannet population and Scotland has 60% of the world’s great skuas.
These and other seabirds are already under massive pressure from climate change, lack of prey fish, deaths through entanglement in fishing gear and developments along our coasts.
The impact of avian flu could hit them particularly hard as seabirds tend to live for a long time and take longer to reach breeding age. They also usually have fewer chicks.
This means deaths from bird flu could further decrease declining numbers and that any recovery from the disease would take far longer.
What should UK governments be doing?
The bird flu which is causing these birds to die is a highly mutable and deadly new form which originated in poultry farming.
The RSPB are calling on UK governments to develop a response plan urgently. We want to see coordinated surveillance and testing, disturbance minimisation, carcass disposal and biosecurity to stop the spread.
In the longer term, we want much higher importance being given to prioritising and funding seabird conservation. This would help make our seabird populations more resilient to these diseases and the other challenges they face.