State environmental officials said on Wednesday they now “strongly suspect” that bird flu is responsible for the deaths of large numbers of seabirds that wash ashore on the island’s shores.
“Highly pathogenic avian influenza, which very rarely infects humans, is suspected to be the cause of bird deaths along the Massachusetts coastline,” the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.
In the statement, several state departments, including Fish and Wildlife, Wildlife, Agricultural Resources and Health, together urged the public to “abstain from touching or removing birds from coastal areas that appear to be sick, injured or dead.”
The statement also cited an increase in dead eiders, cormorants and seagulls, warning that the flu can infect pets.
In the past 10 days, birdwatchers on the island have reported a large number of dead Greater Shearwaters, an oceanic migratory bird, popping up on shores from Squibnocket to Norton Point. Other reports, including one from the Edgartown Animal Protection Department, suggested dead cormorants had also been collected.
“We are aware of shearwater deaths on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere, and are working with several partners, including USDA, states and NGOs,” said Caleb Spiegel, a wildlife biologist with the Migratory Bird Program for the Northeastern Region Fish and Wildlife of the United States. US , in an email to the Gazette Tuesday afternoon.
Reports earlier in the week that the birds had died of avian influenza (AI) had not been confirmed.
“Although AI has not, to my knowledge, been confirmed in large shearwaters on our coast, it is important to take extra precautions now when encountering dead birds to avoid spreading to other animals,” Mr Spiegel wrote. “In other locations (e.g. Europe, Atlantic Canada) AI has been confirmed in seabirds.”
He also said he had been in contact with veterinary surgeon Samantha Gibbs, chief of the USFW’s wildlife health agency.
Reports of dead shearwaters first started around June 10-11, according to Rob Culbert, who writes the weekly Bird News column for the Gazette.
“We have found up to 69 birds since [June 10th]’ Mr Culbert told the Gazette.
He suggested that the mortality could be due to natural causes. “We always find dead seabirds in June, dead shearwaters in June, on the beaches,” Mr Culbert said, although he acknowledged that the number of birds is quite large.
Other wildlife experts said more information is needed, given the large number of birds found and the known outbreak of bird flu in remote locations.
“It could be bird flu, it could be other things. † † At this point, anyone can guess,” said Luanne Johnson, executive director of Biodiversity Works, a nonprofit based in Vineyard Haven.
“There has been a big die-off, disease is suspected and people shouldn’t be treating the corpses,” said Ms Johnson, adding: “If it’s a natural die-off, it’s a pretty bad die-off.”
Ms Johnson said everyone should wait for the necropsies to come back and a wildlife vet’s perspective.
“It’s a lot of birds — it’s more than I’ve ever seen,” she said.
The Fish and Wildlife Declaration Department is calling on the public to report dead or dying seabirds to mass.gov/reportbirds. If Avian Flu is observed in pets, the public is asked to contact the Department of Agricultural Resources at (617) 626-1795.
Updated with press release and new information from state environmental officials.