As birds start to make their journeys north, they may be carrying the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) that has claimed the lives of tens of millions of flocks and disrupted the egg industry.
The bird migration season began in February and will conclude in May. Scholars familiar with aviary species are worried about the possibility of the traveling birds spreading the flu to commercial flocks.
Migrating birds can carry the virus without showing any signs of being infected, said Rodney Holcomb, an agriculture economist at Oklahoma State University.
The birds that aviary experts are most concerned about being HPAI carriers, Holcomb said, are raptors — including hawks, owls and eagles — and waterfowl, such as ducks and geese. These wild birds make up the majority of cases reported by the USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service’s list of confirmed bird flu cases.
Poultry are especially susceptible to being infected by migrating raptors acting as predators, Holcomb said. “Hawks, owls and eagles love to prey on other birds, especially nice, plump broilers and turkeys when they get the chance,” he said. “Even if they don’t kill a bird, the fact that they may attach a bird means they could transfer the flu to that one bird and thus the entire flock.”
If HPAI spreads more easily, the virus could lead poultry and egg producers to cull millions more flocks, which would make the industry’s supply situation even more dire.
The meat and protein industry is more prepared to handle the crisis than in 2015, the last time bird flu ravaged flocks, Holcomb said. Nevertheless, the USDA’s food price projections in 2023 show a high range of volatility, a possible increase of over 20% in egg prices depending on how the spring migration impacts the virus’ trajectory.
The next month and a half will be critical in determining what food security will look like for the coming year and how well the industry will be able to protect against the virus spreading further, said Maurice Pitesky, poultry health and food safety epidemiology professor at the University of California, Davis.
The long-term impact could result in higher concentrations of the virus only among waterfowl and raptors, he said, but there are many unknowns, such as whether the virus will mutate.
“We might be dealing with a virus that’s endemic in wild birds in North America, and we might just have to deal with that part,” Pitesky said. “What we don’t want is the virus to be endemic in domestic poultry, because that has all kinds of other economic and food security ramifications.”