The testing of shorebirds began Wednesday on an Anchorage coastal wildlife refuge, said Bruce Woods, spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It’s the first sampling of a summer project to screen birds for bird flu throughout the state. Nationwide, the goal is to sample 75,000 to 100,000 wild birds. In Alaska, about $4 million in federal money will be allocated to study about 15,000 birds, Woods said.
More than 40 species of waterfowl and shorebirds are considered susceptible to infection by a highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu virus that has killed more than 100 people in other parts of the world, mostly in Asia.
Bird experts narrowed the list to the 28 species considered most likely to be carriers and most practical to sample.
To screen the birds for the deadly virus, the Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska’s Fish and Game Department also are setting up more than 50 remote backcountry camps accessible mainly by float planes or boats.
Many birds will be tested and released. Others will be tested after they have been killed during seasonal hunts.
Alaska is an ideal bird flu laboratory because it is at the crossroads of migratory pathways for birds flying between the United States and other countries. Some of the birds arrive in Alaska each year from Asia.
In initial sampling along Cook Inlet near Anchorage, scientists targeted two species, the long-billed dowitcher and the pectoral sandpiper.
“It’s kind of like stopping to top off the tank on a trip,” Gill said.
Researchers will capture birds in nets or ground traps and collect fecal samples that will be flown to a laboratory.