Hundreds of birds have been found dead at a suburban Chicago lake, according to wildlife officials, marking the first major avian flu outbreak in the Great Lakes region this year as experts fear hundreds more could soon be found.
More than 200 animals were found on Baker's Lake in the Barrington area, far northwest of Chicago. The lake, according to the Forest Preserves of Cook County, is known for bird watching and "is home to one of the most significant heron rookeries in the Midwest."
“This is the same flu that is causing massive die offs in our poultry industry through out north America," said Chris Anchor, wildlife biologist for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
The outbreak is the first seen in the Great Lakes Region, though the virus has been impacting birds across the Midwest for the last couple months.
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Millions of turkeys and chickens at commercial farms in numerous states have been killed this year due to avian influenza. Late last month, the virus was confirmed in wild birds found in three southeastern Michigan counties, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Chicago-area zoos recently pulled dozens of their birds from outdoor exhibits amid the spread of this year’s highly transmissible strain of the bird flu.
Two smaller outbreaks were also reported in Illinois so far this year, affecting backyard flocks in McLean and Carol counties.
The spread of the disease is largely blamed on the droppings of wild birds, such as ducks and geese, which often show no signs of illness.
But Anchor said the mass deaths seen in the suburban Chicago lake mark a shift for the virus.
“This represents a very significant change in the behavior of the virus," he said. "Up until this point we’ve only seen groups of two, three, half a dozen birds succumbing to it. In this instance, we actually have hundreds of birds that have succumbed to it”
The timing of the outbreak is also raising alarm for scientists as it comes at a time when many birds are migrating or nesting.
“We have millions of birds moving from the south to the north and places like this they can become infected and move the virus along," Anchor said.
Unlike other outbreaks that affect farms, this avian flu has proven to primarily move through wild animals, quickly infecting other flocks.
“If this was a poultry farm it would have already been depopulated, and that would have been the solution - depopulate and incinerate the carcasses," Anchor said. "But in a wildlife situation, you don’t have that option. All we can do is sit back, monitor it and look for changes in the species that are involved and continue to provide the state pathologist with samples."
It remains unclear how long the virus could plague wildlife populations this year.
In the last week, half the birds in the popular Baker's Lake rookery, also known as "nesting island," have died.
“I’m concerned because unlike us humans, who can wear a mask or get a vaccine, there’s nothing that can be done to help protect these birds," said area bird watcher Wei Xiao.