Birdwatchers eyeing avian flu risk at county park

While avian flu may not yet be a major threat to human beings, local birdwatchers fear the anticipated arrival of the disease could wreak havoc with the local bird population.

Sequoia Audubon Society officials in San Mateo County are particularly worried about Bayfront Park, Menlo Park's 160-acre open-space park, which hosts dozens of species of birds year-round and is a major migration destination for wintering birds, according to conservationist Robin Smith. Though avian flu has not yet touched down in North America, many experts are saying 2006 could be the year it happens.

“The concern, right now, is how, when and where is it going to arrive on the Pacific Coast,” said Alexia Retallack, information officer with the California Department of Fish and Game. “In terms of wild birds and migration, it could be this fall.”

Despite the Audubon Society's concerns, Menlo Park officials so far have not heard any warnings about the potential for avian flu in local parks, Public Works Director Kent Steffens said. County officials are not monitoring bird populations at this point, said Beverly Thames, spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services Department.

There are more than 140 strains of avian influenza, but experts are particularly concerned about a highly infectious strain called H5N1 that has killed 113 people in Asia and infected untold numbers of birds in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Most humans who contracted the virus did so throughclose contact with birds, particularly chickens at home or in live-bird markets, according to Christine Pearson, spokeswoman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include aches, fever, cough, sore throat, eye infections and respiratory disease.

Avian flu is highly contagious among birds, however, and could be brought to California by migrating waterfowl, which make this region their home during the winter months, according to Retallack. Waterfowl, including geese, ducks, swans and gulls, are particularly susceptible, while songbirds are less affected. The disease causes death in 75 percent of infected chickens.

Pet birds and farm birds, particularly those caged outdoors, are also at risk if they come into contact with infected wild birds — and humans can play a role in communicating the disease from one species to another and leading to further viral mutations.

“It's passed through secretions and feces,” Retallack said, suggesting hikers and park visitors wash up before heading home. “Right now it’s a bird disease; the more we can prevent people from contracting it, the better chance we have of preventing it from becoming a human health issue.”

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