Bird Watcher's General Store

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Bird Flu Unlikely from Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

Is there any danger of catching bird flu from the birds at my feeder? Should I wear gloves when I put in new food, so that I’m not in contact with bird germs?

-Linda, Glasgow, KY


Cute town Linda,

I had never heard of Glasgow, Kentucky, so I looked it up on the internet. What a treat that was. On the opening page of Glasgow’s “Official website” is a picture of a pleasant looking woman who is sitting next to a birthday cake, that is lit up with tons of candles. The caption under the picture reads “Nanny turns eighty.” How sweet. Do you know Nanny? Is she as pleasant as she looks in the picture? If she is anything like the nanny that I know, she’s fine until someone places a bingo card in front of her and then look out. All nannies have a dark side, I’ll bet yours does too. Am I right? Come on, you can tell us.

Speaking of the dark side, it’s hard to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without having someone tell us that the end is near because a flock of virus-loaded chickadees are about to wipe us all out. The gloom about the coming bird flu is everywhere. Could birds wipe us all out? Possibly, but I’m not worrying about it. I just finished teaching my teenage daughter to drive. There isn’t much that’s going to frighten me for a while.

You might be surprised to learn this, but I’m not an expert on the flu, although I should be, I’ve had it enough times. Here is what I’ve learned from reading some less hysterical writings about bird flu. It turns out that many species of animals get some form of flu, including birds, horses, pigs, even whales. Typically each species keeps their nasty germs to themselves. Horses only pass their flu on to other horses and whales only pass the whale flu on to other whales. Don’t ask me how a whale passes on its flu germs, but if it involves sneezing, I don’t want to be around for it.

For the most part humans don’t catch the flu from birds, horses or whales, although Jonah did report some dizziness after his brief whale encounter. Most of the time we catch the flu from each other, not from other animals. The concern that scientists have is that the bird flu may mutate into some kind of crazy super flu that will, if the circumstances are right, spread from birds to humans. In some locations that has happened, but only on a small scale and not from wild birds. A few Asian farmers have gotten sick from their domestic chickens, from what has been described as “closer than normal contact.” I don’t want to know what that means.

The wild birds that have the potential to carry the bird flu are waterfowl and shorebirds. Fortunately, very few people feed shorebirds at their backyard bird feeders Linda, especially in Kentucky. The experts claim the odds are very slim that songbirds will be a carrier of this flu. And even if they did carry it, it’s hard to catch bird flu from birds. Normal common sense behavior such as washing your hands after filling your feeders and not licking the perches should keep you plenty safe. Right now, May, 2006, human bird flu is rare, isolated, and as of yet has not stepped one foot in North America. Will it arrive here? Most likely. Will it be bad when it arrives? No one knows. Should we worry? You know how that goes, the worry-types will be stocking up on water, batteries and duct tape, while the rest of us will be enjoying life.

If the bird flu does come to North America, birds won’t be our concern, it will be the people in the elevator, on the subway, or in church. Our fellow humans will be the ones we need to avoid, not the birds that fly through our yard.

The flu, bird or otherwise, is a serious illness. The seasonal flu, the one that we don’t worry about and the one the media doesn’t over-hype, kills over 30,000 Americans every year. But we aren’t all worked up over the seasonal flu. We wash our hands, get our shots, don’t buy any duct tape and go about our lives. I think that’s what we need to do in this case too.

There is always something that they claim is going to doom us, Linda. Last year it was West Nile virus. The year before it was SARS. Before that it was Legionnaires’ Disease and let’s not forget about Gerry Ford’s Swine Flu. Back then we had to avoid pigs. This year it’s birds. I have no idea what we’ll have to avoid next year, but for the sake of nannies everywhere, let’s hope it’s not bingo.