A project of utmost importance has sent state and federal wildlife workers into the field on Saturdays since October because they are top days for waterfowl hunting.
The goal is to monitor the spread of avian influenza. While not the strain of bird flu that made headlines nearly a decade ago because it could have infected humans, the target virus of the monitoring project infects domestic poultry and caused depopulation of more than 48 million chickens from barns across Canada, the Pacific Northwest and Midwest.
To prevent its spread, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture banned poultry exhibits, asked owners of backyard flocks to register them and called for bio-security precautions at poultry facilities. State officials recently lifted the ban on public bird shows and sales, but said the threat of an outbreak would never go away.
“For the Cape Fear River Watershed, our pre-December 1 quota was 220 samples and we met that,” said Chesley Ward, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Southern Coastal Game Land Management Biologist. “Our post-December quota for the Cape Fear River Watershed is 90 and we have had a difficult time. Wildlife personnel in other watersheds have not had the trouble we have. This year, hunting in this is more difficult than usual.”
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Ward named a litany of problems with obtaining samples from hunter-harvested waterfowl. Hunting puddle ducks in the southeastern region is not as productive, even during a normal season, as it is in the northeastern region where waterfowl hunting on big sounds and rivers is practically a way of life. He also blamed weather. Repeated rains flooded out coastal game land impoundments and private hunting properties.
“Whitehall Plantation flooded repeatedly,” he said. “Hunters who drew permits there are not having much luck. We obtained some samples from Suggs Mill Pond Game Land and some Piedmont game lands, but most ducks at Suggs Mill Pond are ring-necks and other diving ducks, which we do not sample.”
However, on a Saturday earlier this month, they sampled 25 ducks from Holly Shelter Game Land’s impoundments and boat ramp and some nearby private properties.
“We have taken 68 samples including this morning,” Ward said. “I hope to get a few more before the morning is over.”
“It is a USDA-funded project,” said Rachael Schwartz, a USDA Wildlife Specialist. “So, we work together. It is a very important project because North Carolina is a top poultry-producing state. We don’t know how it moves from wild waterfowl into poultry houses.”
Doug Howell, the Commission’s Waterfowl Biologist, said in a telephone conversation that monitoring wild ducks takes substantial staff time. However, it is a worthwhile undertaking to protect the poultry industry.
“The USDA is the lead agency, but it involves the USGS, USFWS and state wildlife agencies. The National Flyway Council coordinates individual state wildlife agencies and that is how the Commission was involved.”
Commission personnel are obtaining samples from four watersheds, Upper Tennessee (200), Chowan-Roanoke (410), Neuse-Pamlico (590) and Cape Fear (310). Biologists swab the mouth and vent, place the swabs in growth medium, and send them to a laboratory. Depending upon whether and which flu strains are found, results take two days to one week. The Commission had obtained some positive samples, but, none yet for the deadliest strain.
Hunters may remember when low-pathogenic Asian H5N1 flu entered North America, resulting in Commission personnel sampling ducks taken during permit hunts between 2006 and 2011. Puddle ducks like wood ducks and mallards are primary carriers because they shed the virus without dying.
Back then, epidemiologists feared the Asian strain could infect humans. When that concern ended, the Commission curtailed sampling. Then, some backyard poultry in British Columbia died of a new strain after eating some hunter-harvested wild ducks. Avian influenza flew with wild waterfowl to California, Oregon and Washington. When it leaped the Rocky Mountains, it resulted in the deaths of millions of turkeys and chickens, primarily laying hens, in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Ward received a call, so he and Schwartz acted quickly. They swabbed the anus and throat of the two wood ducks, placed the samples in plastic bags, marked them and set them inside a cooler.
“A hunter has a puddle duck at Lodge Road Impoundment in Holly Shelter,” he said. “We ship all we can to the lab at the same time because shipping is expensive. The more samples we can take today, the more efficient the process will be.”