Dozens of Dead Puffins in Dalvík

Puffins lundar látrabjarg

Nearly 50 dead puffins were found on the seashore in Dalvík, North Iceland, RÚV reports. Chief Veterinarian of MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, says their cause of death is unclear but it could be avian flu. The deaths are being investigated.

“Puffins are of course returning to their homesteads if we can say so, at least their summer grounds where they nest and lay eggs,” stated Þorvaldur H. Þórðarson, MAST’s chief veterinarian. “So whether that has something to do with it, one can’t say. But of course the first thing that comes to mind is the possibility of avian flu.”

Mass deaths reported last year

Last year similar incidents were reported in West Iceland, with locals spotting dead puffins and kittiwakes in the dozens. No bird flu was detected in samples taken from the birds. Some meteorologists suggested that extreme weather had caused the deaths.

Þorvaldur stated that MAST would look into the deaths and decide whether samples would be taken for further analysis.

Puffin populations on the decline

Iceland plays host to a significant portion of the world’s puffins, with approximately 20% of the global population nesting in the Westman Islands every year. In total, the country boasts some 3 million nesting pairs. Although Iceland’s puffins have had some good breeding seasons in recent years, recent data shows their population has declined by 70% over the last 30 years.

While puffin populations naturally fluctuate over time, the recent data unveiled an unprecedented pattern and a more rapid decline than previously believed. Last year, experts proposed a ban on puffing hunting in Iceland. Experts say a ban would slow, though not stop, the birds’ decline.

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Falcon Population Dwindling

An Icelandic falcon

The falcon population in Iceland has never been smaller, at least not since research into it began in 1981. Bird flu is the likely cause, experts at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History told RÚV.

The gyrfalcon is the largest of the falcon species and its Icelandic population is genetically unique compared to other populations in countries across Arctic coasts and tundra. Its image was featured on the crest of the Icelandic coat of arms until 1919 and Iceland’s highest honour, the medal of The Order of the Falcon, is named after it and bestowed upon citizens and foreigners by the president of Iceland.

Only one case of bird flu discovered

For over 40 years, the Icelandic Institute of Natural History has monitored falcons in an area of over 5,000 square kilometres in the northeast of Iceland. Since research began, the population has never been smaller and has dwindled significantly in the last three years. In only 38 of 88 known nests did experts discover nestlings. Never before have there been as many empty nests in the northeast area. Fluctuations in population size are not unusual, however, and are linked to the population of ptarmigan in Iceland, the gyrfalcon’s main prey.

Experts still say this drop is worrying. The likeliest explanation is that more birds succumbed to bird flu than originally estimated. Only one case of bird flu in falcons was discovered in Iceland in 2022, but many more falcons have been found dead with bird flu as the suspected cause.

Rare Bird Flu Detected in Eagle and Eider Duck

White-tailed Eagle Haförn Hafernir

A white-tailed eagle and an eider duck found dead in Iceland in September both tested positive for a severe strain of bird flu that has never been detected in Iceland before. The risk of infection for poultry and other other birds in captivity is low, according to the Food and Veterinary Authority.

Samples taken from a white-tailed eagle found dead on a skerry near Barðaströnd in the Westfjords in mid-September tested positive for a severe bird flu virus of the strain HPAI H4N5. An eider duck that was found dead in Ólafsfjörður, West Iceland recently was infected with the same strain of bird flu virus. The strain has not been detected in Iceland before and is not common.

Spread of bird flu low

The samples were studied at the University of Iceland’s Keldur Institute for Experimental Pathology. The results underline the importance of ensuring good infection prevention when dealing with poultry and other birds in captivity. Based on the data available at this point in time, however, it can be assumed that the spread of avian influenza viruses is low in Iceland and the risk of infection for poultry and other birds in captivity is therefore low.

Sequencing may determine origin

Few reports of sick or dead wild birds have been received by the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) since spring, after reports of widespread bird deaths among kittiwakes, puffins, and other seabirds subsided. Sample tested by MAST ruled out bird flu as the cause of those deaths.

As of July, only five samples have been taken from wild birds. Three of them tested negative for bird flu, while the two mentioned above tested positive. Researchers are hoping to sequence the samples of the viruses in order to determine whether the new strain arrived from Europe or from migratory birds arriving in late summer from nesting sites in the western Atlantic. HPAI H5N5 has been detected in only four samples in Europe recently, all from wild birds in Norway and Sweden, and in a few samples from wild birds, red foxes, and skunks in eastern Canada.

 

The Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) reminds the public that reporting sick and dead wild birds is a key element in monitoring the presence and spread of bird flu.

Bird Flu Widespread in Wild Birds in Iceland

súlur súla gannets

Bird flu was confirmed in eight out of 15 samples that were taken from wild birds in Iceland last week, Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) announced. MAST has encouraged farmers of domestic fowl and other bird owners to take measures to prevent infection among their birds. The risk of infection to humans and other animals is, however, considered very low.

The eight positive samples processed last week were from three different regions of the country. Three were from gannets found in Njarðvík and Grindavík, Southwest Iceland; three from gannets found on Snæfellsnes peninsula, West Iceland; one from a greylag goose in Akureyri, North Iceland; and one from a great black-backed gull in Húsavík (also in North Iceland). The first positive samples among wild birds were confirmed earlier this month.

Risk of infection high for domestic fowl

“It is clear that at this time bird flu is widespread among wild birds and the risk of infection for domestic fowl is therefore great,” the notice from MAST reads. “Birds kept partially outdoors, or in buildings where infection prevention is inadequate, are most at risk of infection.”

To prevent infection, MAST encourages farmers to keep fowl indoors or under solid roofing, so that neither wild birds nor their droppings can come into contact with the domestic fowl. Farmworkers are recommended to switch shoes and put on protective clothing when attending to the birds and not use the same gear outside of where the birds are kept.

Risk of human and pet infection low

Despite the cases found among wild birds in Iceland, Brigitte Brugger, a MAST veterinarian who specialises in domestic fowl, told Vísir humans have no reason to worry about getting infected with bird flu – nor worry about their pets contracting it. “There are no indications that humans contract these viruses. There are very few known exceptions where people who have had a lot of contact with groups of infected birds have contracted [bird flu] and gotten mild symptoms, but the average person has nothing to fear at this time,” Brigitte stated.

Cat and dog owners need not worry either, according to Brigitte, though if pets bring home wild birds, owners should avoid touching them with bare hands, and should instead dispose of the birds using plastic bags or gloves.

Bird Flu Confirmed in Iceland

Bird

Bird flu has been confirmed in three wild birds in Iceland in recent days: a pink-footed goose in Hornafjörður in Southeast Iceland, a raven in Skeiða in South Iceland, and a gannet in Selvogur, also in South Iceland. The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) issued a statement about the presence of bird flu on Friday. But while poultry farmers are advised to take precautions to keep their chickens from becoming infected, the general public is not considered to be at risk for contracting the infection from consuming eggs or poultry.

MAST has activated its plan for responding to and preventing infectious diseases in birds.

Authorities have identified the bird flu variant in question to be H5N1. This variant is the most common one in neighbouring countries but has not been found to cause infections in humans. MAST emphasizes that eating eggs or poultry is not thought to pose any risk of infection for humans. People are, however, cautioned about interacting with or touching sick or dead birds. The public is asked to report dead birds whose cause of death is clearly not an accident of some kind on the MAST website so the agency can determine if samples and testing are needed.

Following MAST’s announcement, RÚV reported that hens at a farm in Skeiða (the town where the infected raven was found) showed symptoms of the bird flu and were slaughtered as a result. Samples were taken from the culled poultry and sent for testing; results were still pending at time of writing. Poultry farmers and bird owners are urged to keep their birds under a roof and fenced in, so as to prevent infection from wild birds.