When LSA sophomore Kimberley Thompson returned to campus at the start of the school year, she said she noticed something she had never before: an abnormally large number of dead birds.
“I remember seeing (the birds) and being sad because they were all these different colors,” Thompson said. “They were pretty, colorful birds.”
Thompson said she saw these birds lying on the ground each day between the Hatcher Graduate and Shapiro Undergraduate Libraries. LSA senior Sandhya Srinivasan also noticed an increase in dead birds on campus in the past few weeks. She said a group of students in Martha Cook residence hall theorized that an emerging avian influenza outbreak could be the cause of the increase in bird deaths.
“Someone mentioned (the avian flu) in the Martha Cook group chat, and I mentioned that I happened to see these dead birds too,” Srinivasan said.
However, reports from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirm that Washtenaw County has only one confirmed case of avian influenza, as of Oct. 7.
Though the idea is not a far stretch. In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture detected the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in a domestic flock of birds in Kalamazoo County. Since then, the department has been monitoring the development of the HPAI and has detected more than 160 positive detections in wild birds and mammals throughout the state of Michigan.
In a press release on Sept. 19, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) outlined a plan to encourage reporting of sick and dead birds across the state. The plan offers two hotline numbers for domestic case reporting, as well as a feature on Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources app, called Eyes in the Field, for wild bird reporting.
“MDARD is continuing to work diligently with local, state, and federal partners to quickly respond to reports of sick or dead domestic birds to best mitigate the spread of HPAI and provide outreach,” the release states.
HPAI, commonly referred to as bird flu, is a highly contagious virus that mainly infects wild bird flocks. While the public health risk remains low, HPAI can infect humans in rare cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infection in humans can range in severity from mild symptoms to severe disease resulting in death.
Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology, said the risk of human transmission is very low. The HPAI subtype, H5N1, is rarely able to infect humans due to the nature of the “H” protein, which allows a virus to attach to cells and begin infection. Martin clarified that humans are typically infected by H1N1 or H3N1, not H5N1.
“In order for a human to get an H5N1 infection from one of these birds, they would have to be receiving a very high dose of virus from a sick, live bird,” Martin said.
Nationwide, this year’s HPAI infection among bird populations is the most widespread since 2015, with confirmed bird infection numbers already reaching 47.5 million.
Infected birds may experience neurological abnormalities such as difficulty walking, lack of appetite and low energy. HPAI is transmitted via saliva, mucus and feces. Potential human infections can arise from contact with infected birds, their bodily fluids or surfaces contaminated with bird flu viruses.
As of Oct. 14, there has only been one reported case of human HPAI infection connected to the current outbreak.
Martin also said the increase in dead birds on campus could be caused by a number of avian viruses, which are typical for the autumn season. Twelve birds have tested positive for West Nile Virus (WNV) in Michigan as of Oct. 14, though no cases have been reported in Washtenaw County. WNV is transmitted almost exclusively via a bite from a mosquito that is infected, not from human or animal contact. The CDC estimates about one in five people infected with WNV will experience symptoms.
“You can have these huge outbreaks of animal influenza, swine influenza, bird influenza, that don’t affect humans that much,” Martin said. “In order for a human to get an H5N1 infection from one of these birds, you would have to be receiving a very high dose of virus from a sick, live bird.”
Daily Staff Reporter Carlin Pendell and Daily News Contributor Emma Spring can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.