Bird hospitals ramp up to forestall avian flu

What's the outlook for avian flu spreading to songbirds and birds of prey, as poultry farms in the Upper Midwest are hit hard by a lethal virus? After a dead Cooper's hawk, a raptor that feeds on other birds, tested positive for the disease in western Minnesota, I decided to check in with the Raptor Center and the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

"We've increased our attention to biosecurity," said Julia Ponder, executive director of the Raptor Center. "This doesn't mean taking major new steps but it does mean being sure that staff and volunteers follow all protocols and have heightened awareness around this issue."

The Raptor Center is routinely testing raptors that prey on waterfowl and other bird species, and none of these have tested positive.

The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which admits a wide range of wildlife, has been testing waterfowl, shorebirds, pigeons and crows before admitting them, and hasn't turned up any signs of the disease. The center has put greater emphasis on avoiding contamination, including providing foot baths for staff's and volunteers' shoes before entering animal wards. The center is also placing greater emphasis on human safety, including recommending rubber boots and frequent glove changes.

"We do much of this already," said Phil Jenni, the center's executive director, "but we're giving it greater emphasis to protect our patients, staff and volunteers. Other than this, it's not clear to me that the virus will affect our operation very much."

Both Ponder and Jenni spoke of the need for the state to have an effective surveillance system to better prepare for such outbreaks.