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Birds of Prey Centre recovering from outbreak of West Nile Virus over summer

Posted on January 1, 2019 by Sunny South News

By Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News

The Birds of Prey Foundation has confirmed that an outbreak of West Nile Virus took the lives of some of their most popular birds at their facility.

Staff at the Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale noticed that birds were getting sick in early August, and over the course of the next 30 days, they lost 15 birds of varying species used in their public programs.

Among these deaths include Roosevelt the Bald Eagle — a six-year old eagle used in daily flying demonstrations — and Logan — a young immature Bald Eagle.

Both birds could have lived for another 20-25 years at the centre.

“We had just one or two birds die, and then it just started happening every few days,” said Colin Weir, director of the Birds of Prey Centre.

“We can tell by the symptoms that the birds had, it was just our opinion based on 40 years of experience, it was West Nile Virus.”

While the centre may lose a bird or two a year, birds living at the centre can live up to 40 years. The cluster of birds deaths in such a short time frame, in addition to the birds experiencing epileptic-like seizures, led the staff to believe that WNV was the culprit.

“For the birds to be dying at such an alarming rate, all at the hottest time of year and showing seizure-like symptoms, it was just irrefutable proof of West Nile Virus.”

Another factor that contributed to their finding was construction on the Malloy Basin Stormwater Project, according to a press release from the foundation. The Town of Coaldale had drained the wetland area during construction, leaving very little water in the area, except for in shallow pools that were created in depressions in the ground.

With no fresh water coming in, the pools became stagnant, and it led to an increase in the mosquito population, which is is an “environmental trigger” for WNV, as mosquitoes transmit the virus.

As this had not occurred in previous summers, and the birds affected were housed closest to the ponds, the centre believes that the increased mosquito activity at these ponds caused the WNV outbreak.

Normally, the centre doesn’t have a problem with WNV. Back in 2003, when WNV first came to the province, they had a couple of birds who had arrived at the centre with the disease who died from it, but they haven’t had a problem with it since then, and they have experienced nothing on this scale.

“For such an alarming number of birds to be dying, within a short period of time, and all clustered within a specific geographical area, is definitely not normal, okay? And the thing that was different this year was the Malloy Basin project and the drained wetlands.”

As water levels and spraying are an municipal responsibility, and due to the health risk for nearby residents and visitors, Weir said he informed the town of the outbreak, and they were asked not to talk about it until it was proven. Noting that the town probably wasn’t as experienced with WNV as the centre was, he said they probably wanted to confirm it was WNV, before setting off any “alarm bells”.

“The problem is, by the time we get test results back — which would take a few weeks at the very shortest time — then the West Nile season was over,” said Weir. “The birds dying like that, is kind of like a canary in the coal mine kind of scenario, where they’re your first kind of warning sign, that you got a problem. And so, we thought they might want to know right away, and so that’s why we, we’re just doing their due diligence, just to let them know, and so whatever they decided to do themselves, that was their choice.”

According to the foundation’s press release, the town’s response included filing their ponds, a process which would take several days, and requesting Alberta Health Services to release a public service announcement on the prevention of mosquito bites. They were not informed of any testing for mosquitoes or treatment of the stagnant ponds. The centre also informed Alberta Environment and AHS of the outbreak.

As the centre had to focus on their birds and then find a place to get the testing done, there was a delay in getting the birds tested. The centre’s test results for the birds came back in November as positive for West Nile Virus. As mosquito season was over, and there were other pressing issues they had to deal with at the time, there was a delay in releasing the results.

According to the Birds of Prey release, the town was immediately notified of the outbreak. Kalen Hastings, CAO for the Town of Coaldale, says the town was notified about the situation on Aug. 24.

“The pond, where there is concern of the stagnation, is land leased from the town and under their operation and control. And our understanding is the Birds of Prey Centre knew about the stagnation and was concerned about it for a number of weeks before bringing it to the attention of the town, and immediately after they had brought it to the attention of the town, we immediately began working with them to rectify the situation,” said Hastings. “But, in an ideal world, they would have told us the first day they were concerned about it, not three weeks after.”

Hastings said the town immediately took action to fill the ponds with running water when they were informed that water levels were low, which eliminated stagnation and the need for spraying. The town did not spray, as they were advised that there are benefits and drawbacks to the use of chemicals that are administered as part of mosquito abatement programs, and they can have adverse affects on the ecosystem. Additionally, AHS advised the town that although the water bodies could be tested for culex tarsalis, the presence of this particular mosquito in a particular water body would not be proof of origination of WNV.

Weir said they didn’t notify the public about the outbreak sooner was because the town asked them wait until testing confirmed an outbreak of WNV. Hastings said that upon consulting with Alberta Health Services, they were advised that AHS would send out messaging through its south zone social media platforms as a precautionary measure, and the town had followed their lead.

“We followed the lead of Alberta Health Services because they’re the department with the specific expertise with West Nile.”

When asked if Coaldale had experience problems with WNV in the past, Hastings said “not to my knowledge”. In 2004, around the time WNV had entered the province, Hastings said Weir, on behalf of the Birds of Prey Centre, had written to the town, highlighting some of the issues at the centre he was busy with, and one of those issues was WNV.

The town will be calling for an investigation into the bird deaths to determine the cause of this incident. As the town is the municipal authority and the landlord of the land the centre is on, Hastings said they feel that it was “incumbent on us” to see who bares responsibility for the incident, and what actions all parties involved could have taken to prevent the incident from happening or mitigate its effects.

“The town is confident that the results of the investigation will show that the Town took all reasonable steps to address the concern of West Nile that was expressed on August 24, 2018, and further, that the cause of the West Nile virus had zero connection to the Malloy Drain Stormwater Retention Project constructed in 2017 and 2018,” said Hastings.

“There is nothing to hide here. Let’s get an investigation, let’s get experts in and let’s look and turn over as many rocks as we need to, to get to the bottom of this.

“It’s a terrible tragedy to see what happened to the birds at the centre. I think it’s an excellent time to do a review of our practices, to see if there are any potential gaps, and through the investigation process, consulting with the regulatory authorities, I think now is a good a time as ever to review and see if there are any improvements that we can make systemically to our program, but that’s why we do need an investigation to determine what the root cause is, so that we know, in what areas and in what extent to make any modifications, if any.”

The town leases the land to the centre, and Hastings said though the land is under exclusive control, operation and maintenance of the Birds of Prey centre, and as the landlord, they have an interest in investigating their operations to find their contribution towards the bird deaths, and as the municipal authority, they want to find the root cause of it so they can mitigate any future outbreaks. Hastings said the location of the stagnant water in question was in an area leased and under exclusive control to the centre and not on lands under the town’s maintenance jurisdiction.

Hastings stressed that at this time, they do not know the cause of the outbreak.

“The investigation is going to answer that question, and at this point, it is not helpful for any party to provide conjecture. I think we are going to let science and facts prevail, and that will be determined through the investigation that we do. We’re confident, that there is zero connection, with the contraction of West Nile to the birds to the Malloy Drain Stormwater Retention project, but we are going to let the results of the investigation speak for itself.”

As WNV is contracted through mosquito bites, it cannot be directly passed from birds to humans. Alberta Environment and Parks spokesperson Olav Rokne said that there was an uptick in confirmed WNV cases in the 2018 mosquito season — 50 cases, with 40 being in the south zone — likely due to the heat and humidity.

Rokne said The Birds of Prey Centre had contacted them in the summer over concerns of their birds contracting the virus and, working with the University of Calgary, the test results were positive for WNV.

However, while there was an increase in cases in 2018, it does not compare to when the virus first appeared in the province. From 2003 — when WNV first came to the province — and 2007, there were 646 confirmed cases in humans throughout the province, with 456 of the cases occurring in the south zone.

“There were more cases of West Nile 12 years ago, when the virus first appeared. So from 2003-2007, there were a lot more cases then there are now,” said Rokne. “While 2018 was a year with more cases of it in birds, that tends to do more with mosquitoes.

“At this point, West Nile is just part of the biodiversity of the province.”

Mosquito bites — and the prevention of WNV — can be prevented though the use of sprays containing DEET and by wearing long sleeved shirts and pants, especially at dawn or dusk, when mosquitoes are more active, during the warmer months.

As the Malloy Drain Stormwater Retention Project construction is now over, Weir does not believe they will have the problem again under normal operating water levels. Weir hopes that other communities can hear about what happened here and learn from it.

“This is a learning experience; it’s a very costly learning experience for us in Coaldale, but it’s a learning experience and it’s not something we want to see repeated in other communities,” said Weir. “Pets can be affected, horses are quite  vulnerable to West Nile Virus, and people can be too, it can be fatal.

“It’s really important, even though we haven’t heard much about West Nile Virus in Alberta for many years — like it’s been 10 or 12 years — there’s always the possibility that people can take can bring it back in a hurry very quickly.”

Please note that this story was edited to include an additional paragraph on Coaldale CAO Kalen Hastings answering why the town did spray or test the water in question, as the additional information that was provided to the Sunny South News after press deadline and publishing of the original article in the Jan. 1 edition of the paper.

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