In 48 years of raising pheasants and chukar partridge, Jim Meyer has seen just about everything.
So far, most threats to his business — Oakwood Game Farm in Princeton, Minn. — have been weather-related: Ice, wind and snowstorms can knock down bird pens, and in some cases kill birds themselves.
Now, at this critical time of year for his operation, when some 8,000 hen pheasants will lay about 60 eggs apiece, resulting, ultimately, in the hatching of about 300,000 chicks, he hopes the H5N2 strain of bird flu that has threatened Minnesota’s turkey industry this spring leaves his business unscathed.
“Pheasants are a member of the poultry family, so of course we’re concerned,” Meyer said.
The North American Gamebird Association lists 15 breeders of pheasants, chukars and other game birds in Minnesota.
To date, none has been hit with the lethal strain of highly pathogenic bird flu that has threatened Minnesota turkey and chicken farmers. The Board of Animal Health said Thursday that 98 Minnesota farms have been struck in 22 counties, affecting some 8.3 million birds.
Nationally, more than 33 million birds in at least 15 states have died in the current outbreak, with Minnesota and Iowa turkey and chicken farms suffering the greatest losses.
The state’s game-bird breeding production is dwarfed by its $3 billion poultry industry. Still, outfits such as Meyer’s in Minnesota and similar operations in neighboring states support a sizable workforce.
Not only do they supply hobbyists and commercial operators with millions of pheasant chicks each year, but game-farm breeders also provide hunting clubs with adult birds in the fall and winter months.
Oakwood Game Farm sells about 100,000 adult pheasants and 30,000 adult chukars annually.
Some adult birds also are shipped to states such as South Dakota to supplement wild bird populations at private hunting operations. Hunters who trek to that state from throughout the U.S. sometimes believe these birds to be from wild stock.
Only two regional wild birds are known to have died from the H5N2 bird flu strain this spring, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources research director Lou Cornicelli said Thursday.
One was a snowy owl found in Wisconsin, the other a Cooper’s hawk in Yellow Medicine County, in western Minnesota. “For me, it was interesting that it was a Cooper’s hawk,” Cornicelli said. “Cooper’s hawks don’t generally eat waterfowl. They eat small birds and some small mammals.”
Added Cornicelli: “If, on the other hand, we had found the disease in a peregrine falcon or an eagle, we could surmise they picked it up from eating a wild duck.”
Researchers believe the disease is carried by ducks and geese and spread through their feces. Waterfowl themselves remain unaffected.
One theory about the strain’s origin suggests a form of bird flu originating in Asia traveled in waterfowl to Alaska, where it perhaps mixed with another strain carried by ducks and geese migrating along the North American Pacific coast. The H5N2 strain was then perhaps brought to Minnesota and neighboring states this spring by migrating waterfowl.
“I hear that, but we just don’t know,” Cornicelli said. “We know at least 144 strains of avian influenza are carried by waterfowl. What we don’t know is what role waterfowl played in the spread of the H5N2 disease to domestic turkeys and chickens.”
DNR staff this spring collected 3,138 samples of duck and goose feces from various parts of the state and tested them for the virus. They also tested 83 hunter-killed wild turkeys.
One hundred of the waterfowl feces samples were positive for more harmless strains of bird flu, but not H5N2.
“Finding low pathogenic flu strains in waterfowl is fully expected,” Cornicelli said. “For us, it confirmed that fecal sampling works as a surveillance method.”
No trace, meanwhile, was found in the turkeys.
The agency will further test for the disease this summer and fall, when it undertakes annual goose and duck banding programs. Birds to be banded are captured in the wild and small identifying bands are attached to one leg. The bands help researchers determine information about the birds’ migratory routes and fates.
While banding this year, DNR workers will swab the captured birds for signs of avian flu.
It’s something they have done before. From 2006 to 2010, the agency tested some 12,000 ducks and geese during banding for signs of the H5N1 flu strain that predated the arrival this year of the H5N2 strain.
Meanwhile, Jim Meyer and other game-bird breeders watch and wait, hoping their fowl — for whatever reason — continue to be immune from the disease that has cost rural Midwest economies hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We’re concerned,” Meyer said. “But we’re trying not to overreact.”