Bird flu risk to deer ‘pretty low,’ DNR biologist says

Northwoods Notebook

(Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo) A Cooper’s hawk waits out the rain Wednesday in a field along Six Mile Lake Road. Much of the latter half of the week saw clouds, rain and colder temperatures.

Reports of bird flu spreading to dairy cows prompted me to wonder: Could deer contract the disease as well?

According to the Associated Press, the strain of bird flu that has killed millions of wild birds in recent years as of April 12 had been found in at least 26 dairy herds in eight U.S. states: Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and South Dakota.

The virus, known as Type A H5N1, has been detected in a range of mammals over the past few years, but this is the first time it has been found in cattle, according to several federal health and animal agencies.

Officials believe cows likely became infected by exposure to wild birds, but said cow-to-cow spread “cannot be ruled out.”

Farmers are testing cows that show symptoms of infection, including sharply reduced milk supply and lethargy. Animals that show signs or test positive for illness are being separated from other animals on the farms. The animals appear to recover within two weeks, according to AP.

Deer are considered cousins to the bovine family, a very wide group of cloven-hoofed ruminants that include cattle, yaks, bison, buffalo, antelopes, sheep and goats. The ones that feed in our yard regularly are surrounded by a variety of wild birds also taking advantage of the black oil sunflowers seeds put out daily.

So if cows caught bird flu from contact with wild birds, might deer be at risk?

Two officials with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said for now there’s no evidence the disease has made the jump from bird to deer.

The chances of a deer managing to connect enough with a wild bird that might be carrying bird flu “is pretty low,” said Bill Scullon, DNR field operations manager for the Upper Peninsula Region.

Even if it did happen unseen, it likely wouldn’t be fatal in deer, Scullon said. Dairy cows that contracted the disease all appear to have recovered within a couple weeks with no long-term ill effects, he said.

Melinda Cosgrove, a laboratory manager with the DNR’s wildlife health section in Lansing, agreed nothing has been reported to suggest deer might be susceptible to bird flu.

Despite the reports in dairy cattle, Cosgrove said the incidence of bird flu appears to be waning. Her lab has received fewer dead birds submitted for testing, certainly nothing like the summer of 2022 when the disease hit migrating populations hard, especially waterfowl and raptors like bald eagles that would prey upon the sick birds.

She expects this season will be more like last summer, perhaps even a little less, in terms of bird flu activity. While the virus remains present and circulating, bird populations might be developing a degree of natural immunity, Cosgrove said.

“We’ve reached the new norm,” she said.

I’ve not seen any advisories so far to indicate caution is needed in feeding birds this spring and summer, as was the case in 2022. Still, it’s always a good practice to keep feeding areas raked to discard seed and other materials that might have gone bad and to regularly clean feeders with a light bleach solution to reduce other viruses or bacteria that might sicken birds as well.

Scullon also reminded the region that bears are back out, so it’s time to take those feeders in at night if they’re not out of reach. Having had bears bold enough to come up on the back deck or front stoop looking for a snack, I can say that’s good advice.


Spring’s advance had a bit of a slowdown this week as cooler temperatures took hold again, though some signs of advancement are definitely around.

Several full skeins of Canada geese could be seen overhead early in the week. Spring peepers are noisy; no wood frogs heard so far, though I suspect they’re out there.

As to bird migration, a common yellowthroat gave its “witchety-witchety-witchety” call, signaling at least that warbler was back. Tree sparrows continue to move through, most bound for breeding in Canada.

Pied-billed grebes have mixed with the mallards on Six Mile Lake this past week. A lovely pair of blue-winged teal paddled through Thursday, but I did not have camera readily at hand.

Otherwise, few new arrivals could be spotted, at least out at Six Mile Lake. A glance at the Birding Wisconsin Facebook site didn’t indicate much new movement, either.

But it won’t take long if the weather turns back to more favorable conditions.

The other major sign of spring has been the courting turkeys. One pair got busy right in the middle of Six Mile Lake Road. But most of the time, the females seem much more intent on foraging, preening, drinking — almost anything but pay attention to the strutting, posing displays of potential mates. I wonder what does finally win them over?


Quick update on the injured crow: After being absent much of the previous week and the weekend, the crow has been seen twice, looking in good health, though it is losing some of the flight feathers on the broken wing. I continue to put out extra food that’s accessible to the grounded crow where I can. The darn squirrels keep trying to run off with the extra suet, so I’ve working on devising a system to keep it in place at ground level.


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