June 9, 2006
Officials test for bird flu in arctic Alaska
By Daisuke Wakabayashi
BARROW, Alaska (Reuters) - In a coastal marsh near the
frozen Arctic Ocean, a black-and-white feathered spectacled
eider leaves a gift for Corey Rossi, a wildlife biologist for
the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
dropping left by the large sea duck and then carefully dabs at
the greenish mound with a swab before breaking off the tip into
a plastic vial.
"He laid a fresh one there. We really want the freshest
stuff," said Rossi, Alaska district supervisor for the USDA's
The swab of eider dropping is one of 50,000 such field
samples from wild birds that federal and local agencies aim to
collect in America this year and test for the deadly H5N1
strain of bird flu. Officials also want another 75,000 to
100,000 samples directly from the anus of live or dead birds.
Since 2003, the virus has killed 128 people in nine
countries including Indonesia, Vietnam and China, according to
the World Health Organization, but the highly pathogenic strain
of bird flu has not been found in North America.
The small Alaskan community of Barrow -- the northern-most
city in the U.S. and a crossroads for migratory birds from Asia
-- is the front line for the government's efforts for early
detection of bird-flu's North American arrival.
The work has a sense of urgency because experts fear H5N1
could evolve into a form that easily infects people and that
people can easily pass to others - perhaps sparking a pandemic.
The role of wild birds in carrying H5N1 avian influenza is
unclear, but wild swans are believed to have infected
feather-pluckers in Azerbaijan earlier this year. The more
immediate threat is that the wild birds will infect poultry.
In Barrow, as the frozen tundra starts to thaw in the
summer, migratory birds stop to drink and rest in the area's
It is an ideal spot to find rare birds like the spectacled
eider, which is on the threatened species list and one of 33
bird species the government has identified for priority testing
due to its flights between Asia and North America.
Barrow is also considered a hub for bird-flu testing,
because it is home to the world's largest Inupiat Eskimo
community. Subsistence hunting of waterfowl still plays a
crucial role in the local diet, and officials can test
harvested birds for the virus.
Even in a birder's paradise like Barrow, collecting samples
poses a challenge to biologists who admit that success is often
the result of luck and lots of patience.
"You could walk around the tundra 20 years and not get that
close to a spectacled eider," said Rossi, noting that this type
of duck tends to congregate miles away on the ice atop the
frozen ocean. "Some days, you spend a lot of energy and you
come up with an empty sack."
Wildlife biologists spent two days at a landfill trying to
lure a group of glaucous gulls with whale blubber to a spot
where they could launch a 50-foot by 60-foot (15-meter by
18-meter) net to quickly capture, test and release the birds.
The gulls only approached the bait after the officials left
in the evening. In a separate attempt to catch shorebirds, a
group of biologists set up a thin "mist" net in a coastal marsh
only to be foiled when the net billowed in a stiff breeze, and
the birds easily avoided the trap.
The Bush administration's $29 million call to arms to
combat bird flu will involve biologists from several government
Rick Lanctot, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, plans to send teams of biologists into remote areas of
Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve via helicopter to sample a
larger area and increase the odds of detecting the virus.
"I'm a shorebird biologist, so swabbing butts is not my
highest priority, but it's national emergency kind of thing,"
said Lanctot, who normally monitors shorebirds' nesting
patterns and survival rates.