April sees millions of birds arriving in the UK to raise their young, from aerial masters such as Swifts and Swallows, t...
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 current outbreak is of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), which can cause severe disease and high mortality. This strain has been devastating 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.
To find out how you can help, head to our Wildlife Disease Fund page.
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.
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, nearly 77 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 12% of the UK’s population of Great Skuas 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’ve seen devastating impacts on 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.
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.
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:
The main symptoms of bird flu in birds (which can include any or a combination of the following) are:
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.
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.
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.
This year, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Accepting all non-essential cookies helps us to personalise your experience