Scientists begin testing for bird flu in Alaska

Posted: Friday, May 19, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Federal scientists have started testing migratory birds for signs of the Asian H5N1 avian flu.

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Testing of shorebirds began Wednesday on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, said Bruce Woods, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was the first sampling of a summer-long project to swab birds for bird flu throughout the state. Nationwide, the goal is to sample 75,000 to 100,000 wild birds.

In Alaska, about $4 million in federal money will be spent studying about 15,000 birds, Woods said. Samples will be collected from more than 40 locations.

In initial sampling along Cook Inlet near Anchorage, scientists targeted two species, the long-billed dowitcher and the pectoral sandpiper. Bob Gill of the Alaska Science Center, an arm of the U.S. Geological Survey, said birds will spend a few days feeding and keeping up their energy reserves before moving north to breed.

"It's kind of like stopping to top off the tank on a trip," Gill said.

The long-billed dowitcher is a medium-size shorebird, about 10 inches long, with a long, straight bill. It has a pale gray head and breast with faint spotting and a white belly.

The birds breed in high-latitude coastal wetlands in Alaska, Canada and the Russian Far East. About one-third breed in Asia. Most birds that breed in Asia pass through Alaska in spring and fall.

The nonbreeding range of the long-billed dowitcher is near sites of recent Asian H5N1 outbreaks. During migration and on Russian breeding grounds, those birds mix with other species of birds present in outbreak sites, making dowitchers potential carriers.

Pectoral sandpipers are smaller at 7.5 inches. They have brown heads with dark streaks, black back feathers that turn brown on the wings, and a brown breast with streaks that end in white underparts.

Roughly half of the population breeds in Siberia. The rest breed throughout western and northern Alaska and parts east to central Canada.

Most pectoral sandpipers begin to migrate in late July and August south through the Great Plains and across the Gulf of Mexico to South America.

Most Siberian birds fly east to join that route. Pectoral sandpipers are a high-priority species for the survey, though, because small numbers winter in Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, migrating through the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan. Back in Siberia, they mix with the birds flying through North America.

Alaska researchers who capture birds in nets or ground traps will collect fecal samples. The samples are placed in small vials filled with a liquid to preserve the virus and flown to a laboratory.

Other samples will be taken from birds killed by subsistence hunters, Gill said.

H5N1 bird flu virus has killed more than 100 people, mostly in Asia. More than 40 species of Alaska waterfowl and shorebirds are considered susceptible to the virus. Alaska bird experts narrowed the survey list to 28 species considered most likely to be carriers.

If the virus is found in Alaska, it will not be reason to panic, said Paul Slota of the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., where the samples will be tested.

"If we find it here, that would not necessarily indicate that there was a public health concern or there was an agricultural concern, but it would sure alert public health and agriculture," Slota said.

Many questions remain about whether wild birds can spread the virus or survive it, Slota said. Some outbreaks initially suspected to be caused by wild birds have been proved to come from other sources, he said. Trade and smuggling in domestic poultry also may spread the virus, he said.

"Those are all equally likely," he said. "We're trying to cover as many bases as possible."

To screen other migratory birds for the virus, state and federal agencies are setting up remote backcountry camps accessible mainly by float planes or boats.

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