DNR takes a gander at wild geese

Crews test flocks for avian influenza


Leonardtown -- These days, Maryland's front line of defense against an invasion of the deadly bird flu looks, quite literally, like a wild goose chase.

On foot, in trucks and by boat, a team of biologists from the Department of Natural Resources is swooping down on flocks of geese to test them for avian influenza, specifically Asian H5N1, a strain that has caused the death of more than 100 people and millions of birds overseas.

Wildlife experts suspect that if the deadly form of the virus enters this country, it will most likely be through birds that mingle in the arctic during the breeding season before returning to their wintering grounds.

Maryland has been designated a "Tier One" state by the U.S. Department of Agriculture because the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries are at the heart of the Atlantic goose migratory route, which runs from Canada's Hudson Bay to North Carolina.

"The single most important effort we can make in the classic canary-in-the-coal-mine monitoring is testing wild migratory birds," says Paul Peditto, director of DNR's Wildfire and Heritage Service. "We are creating a scientific dragnet to be able to detect the wildlife carrier of H5N1."

Avian influenza has not been transmitted from wild animals to people, according to government health officials. Rather, captive waterfowl and poultry are believed responsible for transmitting the disease to humans in Asia, Europe and Africa.

The window of opportunity to test live geese is small - about two weeks - when the birds are grounded because they have molted their flight feathers.

So last week and this week, the DNR team is targeting farm ponds, wetlands and watery gravel pits from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland's Washington County for the 800 birds that will be part of a federal database of 115,000 samples.

The task might seem easy, given the flightless birds' rather limited means of escape.

But these birds of a feather flocking together - especially in groups of 100 or more - are as unpredictable as the cartoon Road Runner and nearly as fast.

At a gravel pit in southern St. Mary's County, 150 geese paddling in water shimmering with the late-morning heat bolt as biologists arrive and launch their skiff. Before anyone can react, the birds reach the far shore, cross a gravel road and glide into a smaller pond.

"They're faster than a pickup truck," says waterfowl project leader Larry Hindman, with a degree of admiration in his voice.

Like a cowboy on a roundup, Brent Evans pushes his kayak into the pond and gets ahead of the birds to cut off their escape, while Dave Heilmeier circles the shoreline, clapping his hands to keep them from waddling into the tall marsh grass.

Honking in protest, the geese stream back across the gravel road, and re-enter the first pond, where Donald Webster waits in the skiff to herd them toward waiting colleagues.

The birds waddle ashore again and make a break for yet another small pond.

"Get in front of them! Make yourself large! Hiss! Clap your hands!" shouts Hindman, as biologists act out his orders.

Holding large frames of plastic netting that look like safety gates for babies, they move in until the birds have no where to go. The frames are tied together to make a small pen.

Team members grab the muscular birds, flip them over, tuck their necks under their backs and hold tight, while technicians from Cooperative Oxford Laboratory swab for fecal matter.

"Avian influenza is common in wild birds," says Hindman as he works. "We found a handful of positive samples here last year in ducks and geese."

But in 2003, a virulent strain of H5N1 attacked poultry in Southeast Asia and spread to China, Korea and Siberia. In response, Maryland conducted a limited sampling last summer with the help of Ohio State University; tests were negative.

When federal money became available this year, DNR officials expanded the sampling effort. To save money and manpower, the agency combined the project with its annual goose banding, which is used to track the population and the effect of the hunting season.

Dr. Cindy Driscoll, the state veterinarian, says DNR staff will be going to checking stations and butcher shops during hunting season this fall and winter to collect additional samples.

"It's too early to tell if H5N1 will come here," she says. "But by conducting preliminary sampling and coordinating with the Agriculture Department, we're doing as much as we can to be on guard and be ready."


To read archived coverage of issues dealing with avian flu, go to baltimoresun.com/avianflu.

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