Avian flu

Warning: This webpage contains videos and images of dead and sick birds. Avian flu is killing vulnerable and rare wild birds across the UK and worldwide.

An adult Kittiwake and their chick perched on the edge of a cliff.
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What is avian flu?

Avian flu, or bird flu, affects poultry and wild birds. As with other viruses, there are lots of different strains, most of which cause few or no symptoms in infected wild birds. But the recent outbreak is of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), which can cause severe disease and high mortality. This strain has devastated UK wild bird populations since Summer 2021. It originated in intensive poultry operations in Asia in 1996 and then spread to wild birds

This page answers some frequently asked questions about avian flu, but for the most up-to-date information please visit our blog. See our latest blog on English gamebird release licences here.

To find out how you can help, head to our Wildlife Disease Fund page.

A person holding a bird that has died of bird flu in their gloved hands.

How bird flu is transmitted

Bird flu mostly spreads from bird to bird through direct or indirect contact with infected saliva, nasal secretions or droppings, as well as through predation/scavenging. There are several ways by which the disease is spread, including by contaminated poultry, their excretions and secretions and contaminated objects. Once established in wild birds it can spread around the world as birds migrate across continents.

Recent outbreaks of bird flu

The most recent series of bird flu outbreaks is the largest ever in the UK and worldwide and has killed tens of thousands of birds in the UK alone.  

First, Great Skuas began dying across islands in Scotland in summer 2021. Then in winter 2021/22 on the Solway Firth, bird flu killed a third of the Svalbard breeding population of Barnacle Geese – at least 13,200 birds. In winter 2022/23, up to 5,000 Greenland Barnacle Geese died on Islay, as well as hundreds of ducks, swans, gulls and other geese species. Birds of prey such as Peregrine Falcon, Hen Harrier, Buzzard, White-tailed Eagle and Golden Eagle have also been testing positive.

So far, 78 UK bird species have tested positive for avian flu, including most of our breeding seabirds. 

In summer 2022, the UK’s seabirds were hit extremely hard by bird flu. Thousands of Gannets were lost at RSPB Troup Head and at RSPB Grassholm, with numbers at Grassholm now at lows not seen since the 1960s. We lost over 2,500 Great Skuas in Scotland, as well as over a quarter of our Roseate Terns on Coquet Island, the only breeding colony of this species in the UK. In spring/summer 2023, we again saw devastating impacts on seabirds, including Black-headed Gulls, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Herring Gulls, as well as significant impacts on terns. Seabirds are long-lived, take several years to reach breeding age and rear only one or two chicks per year, so it is particularly difficult for them to recover from such an impact.

Cases have been low in the UK during winter 2023/2024, which is very welcome. However, there have been large outbreaks among Cranes in Hungary and Swans in Romania and, very worryingly, the virus spread to the Antarctic region for the first time this winter. As long as it remains present globally, UK birds are at risk, and we will be monitoring the situation closely as the breeding season begins and our seabirds return.

Seabirds are already under massive pressure from climate change, lack of prey fish, deaths through entanglement in fishing gear, predation by non-native invasive species on islands where they nest and developments along our coasts.

Can bird flu affect humans?

Human infections with HPAI are rare and the risk to the public is low. Most infections are among those who have had close contact with infected birds – usually poultry workers. We are advising people against having close contact with sick or injured birds, this includes touching infected birds, their droppings or bedding; killing or preparing infected birds for cooking; breathing in aerosols (e.g. feather dust).  

Bird flu cannot spread through properly cooked food. Cooked poultry and eggs are safe to eat in areas where outbreaks have occurred.  For more information, visit these websites:  

What are the symptoms of bird flu?

The main symptoms of bird flu in birds (which can include any or a combination of the following) are:   

  • Swollen head
  • Closed and excessively watery eyes
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Lack of coordination and loss of balance, tremors
  • Drooping wings and/or dragging legs
  • Twisting head and neck
  • Haemorrhages (bleeding) on shanks of the legs and under the skin of the neck
  • Respiratory distress such as sneezing or gurgling
  • Discoloured or loose, watery droppings. 

Some species (for example ducks and geese) may show few or no symptoms.  

One of the main signs of an outbreak is a sudden and rapid increase of dead birds.  

A lone Barnacle Goose in the shallow water surrounded by greenery.

How do I report avian flu?

Firstly, do not touch any sick or dead birds. If you are walking with your dog, keep it away from infected birds.   

If the bird or birds are on an RSPB reserve, please inform staff.  

What is the RSPB doing about bird flu?

We’re working to tackle bird flu through our policy, advocacy and science work, as well as on reserves. We’re doing our best to improve the outcome for wild birds, while also protecting the health and wellbeing of our teams and reserve visitors. 

You can find out more about what we're doing to help on our HPAI Seabird Surveys Project page below. 

What are you spending the bird flu appeal money on?

  • We’re funding surveys to understand how seabird populations have been impacted, as well as new scientific research to increase our understanding of the virus and how to tackle it.  
  • We’ve recruited more staff to support our bird flu advocacy work, which includes working with governments and other conservation bodies to develop national response plans that give the best outcome for wild birds. 
  • We’re lobbying governments to address ongoing threats to wild birds. This would help to build wild birds’ resilience to diseases such as HPAI. For seabirds, this includes protecting seabird
    prey species, reducing bycatch and improved marine planning.
  • On our reserves, we’re buying more equipment, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), to keep our staff safe and to reduce the likelihood of the virus spreading.  
  • In some cases, we’re removing dead birds. Funding covers the cost of disposal at appropriate facilities. 
  • We’re working with all four statutory nature conservation bodies to improve monitoring and reporting. 
  • We’re working with BirdLife partners worldwide to tackle bird flu. 
A dead Skua laid out on a grass field.

What is the RSPB doing about gamebird releases?

In 2023, we again called for a temporary ban on gamebird releases (Pheasants, Red-legged Partridges and Mallards) to reduce the risk to wild birds and the risk of viral reassortment, both of which are acknowledged in Defra’s risk assessment on transmission from released pheasants to wild birds. You can find out more here. At our most recent AGM we also called for the release of non-native gamebirds and Mallards to be licensed.

What can governments do?

The RSPB has the following key asks for UK governments to respond to and help tackle the impacts of avian flu in wildlife:

  • Fully and publicly acknowledge that HPAI is a major threat to wildlife.
  • Amend existing HPAI response plans for wild birds in England, Wales and Scotland (and in the case of Northern Ireland draft a comprehensive plan) to reflect new data and to identify and link up with targeted recovery actions to build resilience in the worst-affected species.
  • Implement a testing and monitoring system that is targeted at understanding the virus in wild bird populations (and mammals) and is not just an early warning system to protect poultry.
  • Increase funding for research into how the virus is impacting birds and where resistance is developing.
  • Take account of the large losses of gulls and geese when issuing control licences.
  • Provide clear guidance and funding for landowners and the public for safely removing and disposing of dead birds.
  • Urgently progress other conservation actions that will build resilience in populations and buy slow-breeding species, such as seabirds and raptors, time to develop resistance against the disease.
  • Ensure wildlife crimes involving raptors are properly investigated in the context of HPAI so that postmortem procedures are not impacted.
  • Assess the possibility of vaccination for species of conservation concern with small populations that are particularly at risk from the virus.
  • Take a ‘One Health’ approach to avian flu.

What can I do to help?

  • We need to know as much as possible about the spread of the disease. Please report any dead or dying birds you find, but stay away from them. 
  • Contact your local parliamentary representative and express your concern about bird flu’s impact and the need for stronger government responses across the UK. 
  • Good feeder hygiene is key. Clean bird feeders and feeding stations weekly and change bird drinking and bathing water regularly.   
  • When visiting our reserves, please keep dogs on a short lead to avoid contact with sick or dead birds. 
  • Some areas of our reserves may close for safety reasons, please look out for any signage.    
  • Please clean footwear thoroughly between visits to our reserves and the countryside to try to reduce the spread. 

Why is the RSPB not picking up dead birds on reserves?

In most cases, we’re not collecting dead birds unless their location is a significant public health risk. This is because the evidence on the effectiveness of carcass removal as a way to prevent further transmission or reduce the viral load is still very limited and insufficient to justify the potential risk to our staff and the risk of increased virus spread/stress caused by disturbance. In some cases, we will consider carcass removal on conservation grounds and decisions on this are made on a case-by-case basis. We will also review our position as new evidence emerges and are actively working to contribute to that evidence.

A dead Gannet buried by sand on a beach.

Is it safe to feed birds?

You’re very unlikely to catch bird flu by feeding garden birds, as these birds are currently considered to be low risk in terms of susceptibility to the virus. But good hygiene at bird feeding stations is always sensible. This includes regularly cleaning feeders outside with mild disinfectant, removing old bird food, spacing out feeders as much as possible, wearing gloves while cleaning and feeding and washing your hands afterwards. 

The public should avoid feeding ducks, swans, geese and gulls due to the current outbreak of avian flu in the UK. Feeding these birds could encourage them to gather and increase the transmission risk. Garden birds currently appear relatively unaffected by avian flu, but waterfowl and gull species are particularly susceptible to this disease.

What about birds nesting around my house and garden?

Active wild bird nests are protected by law, so please allow birds to continue nesting. It’s illegal to remove, damage or destroy an active wild bird’s nest and many species that nest close to our homes are red-listed species that need our help; e.g. Swifts, House Martins and House Sparrows. These species are also at low risk of having avian flu.  

I have found a baby bird in need of help, what can I do?

The current advice is to avoid touching sick or dead wild birds. It’s important to confirm the bird is in need of help first, for the bird’s safety and yours. If the bird does need rescuing and the only way to help will require picking the bird up, make sure you wear impermeable gloves to handle the bird. Wash your hands thoroughly immediately after handling the bird. If the bird is a duck, goose, swan, gull or bird of prey, contact the RSPCA/SSPCA/USPCA or a local rescue centre before touching it. 

What should I do if I need to remove a dead wild bird from my garden?

If you need to remove a dead wild bird from your garden, please follow the government advice on these websites: 

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.  

As visitors are not currently in close proximity to birds at our reserves, there is no increased disease transmission risk by keeping our nature reserves open. When there are outbreaks in some birds close to public areas/footpaths these areas may be closed.