LEO Network

2 June 2022

Are seagull eggs dangerous to harvest due to bird flu?

King's Cove, Alaska, United States

It is egg hunting season in many rural Alaska communities, and harvesters want to know if they should be concerned about eating eggs from wild birds. According to guidance from the State of Alaska and USFWS, the risk from avian flu for people is very low.

Consult request from Nadine Kochuten of King Cove:

I have been asked to find out whether seagull eggs are safe to harvest this year with bird flu already showing up in the Aleutians?

LEO Editor Comment:

Nadine asks a really good question. In the Aleutian Islands, sea gull eggs are an important subsistence resource. Sea gulls have been observed in at least one region, the Yukon Delta (see attached LEO Post), displaying symptoms that have been associated with avian flu. So should egg hunters be worried?

According to guidance from the State of Alaska and USFWS the risk from avian flu for people is very low. Furthermore the route of exposure for people is not thought to be from eating wild bird or eggs, so much as it is from breathing in virus or through physical contact with fluids and feathers from birds. As described in the paper, Avian influenza H5N1: risks at the human-animal interface by Elizabeth Mumford and others, "Transmission of HPAI to humans is thought to occur through contact with respiratory secretions, feces, contaminated feathers, organs, and blood from live or dead infected birds and possibly from contaminated surfaces. Consumption of properly cooked poultry and eggs is not thought to pose a risk." The USFWS and the Alaska Migratory Bird Co-Management Council recently put out a fact sheet (attached) which provides the following advice for bird hunters and gathers:

  1. Do not harvest game that appears sick or are found dead.
  2. Wear rubber or disposable latex gloves when handling and cleaning game.
  3. When done handling game, wash hands thoroughly with soap and disinfectant, disinfect knives, equipment and surfaces that were in contact with game.
  4. Do not eat, drink or smoke when handling game.
  5. Cook game (and eggs) thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees (F).

Note: dogs are at low risk for avian flu, but it is advisable to prevent them from eating sick or dead birds. LEO Network has shared this post with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, and the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

You Can Help. If you see a bird that is sick or behaving strangely, note the location (lat/long coordinates are particularly helpful) and any details, and take picture or video. Don't touch or collect a sick or dead bird that you find. USFWS requests this information be submitted to the Alaska Sick/Dead Bird Hotline: 1-866-527-3358. Please note, you can also share your observations, images and video to LEO Network.

This observation has been shared with local, state, and federal health and wildlife agencies. Mike Brubaker

Comment by Andy Ramey, USGS:

Highly pathogenic avian influenza is a specific type of ‘bird flu’ that may cause severe disease or death among infected wild and domestic birds. North America is experiencing a geographically widespread outbreak of highly pathogenic avian in both wild and domestic birds. As of 1 June 2022, there have been 24 confirmed detections of highly pathogenic avian influenza in Alaska reported by the Office of the State Veterinarian as part of the ongoing outbreak, most of which have been identified in wild Canada geese or bald eagles. Characteristic signs of highly pathogenic avian influenza in these species have been lack of coordination and death. I strongly encourage anyone witnessing abnormal bird behavior, such as walking or swimming in circles, head shaking, or paralysis to submit their observations with detailed location information to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Sick/Dead Bird Hotline (1-866-527-3358). Follow up investigation and diagnostic testing are important for confirming or ruling out of infection of birds with highly pathogenic avian influenza. Guidance on best practices for the handling and preparation of hunter-harvested wild birds can be found on websites maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Additional information on how the current outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza pertains to human health and safety is available from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

Comments by Angela Matz, USFWS:

The Alaska Sick/Dead Bird Hotline is receiving calls from people throughout the State - from Southeast to the far north. If you call, please give as much detail as possible about your observation, such as latitude, longitude, and specific location description; behavioral observations of the bird(s) or a positive confirmation of mortality; the species or type of bird; and the time and date of your observations. The person who answers the phone will ask you other questions to get a better idea of what you saw. Please note that the response is determined on a case-by-case basis, and may not include collection of all sick or dead birds reported. If we cannot collect the birds, we will work with the caller to determine a path forward. Some of the criteria that will guide the response are bird species, number of individuals, time since the observation was made, current condition of the carcass(es), and location. Please understand that resource agency personnel may be unable to respond to some reports from remote areas before sick or dead birds are scavenged.