Belgian peregrine falcons hit hard by bird flu

Belgian peregrine falcons hit hard by bird flu
Credit: Carlos Delgado/Wikimedia Commons

Avian species across Belgium are already being hit hard by an outbreak of bird flu. Increasing numbers of seriously sick birds have been admitted to the Nature Aid Centre (Natuurhulpcentrum) in Oudsbergen in Flanders. Six peregrine falcons, which were almost wiped out in Belgium between the 60s and 90s, are among those afflicted, Het Belang van Limburg reports.

“It has never been this bad,” Sil Janssen, an employee of the Nature Aid Centre, told the Belgian newspaper. “The virus has never been so present. We have taken in ducks, geese, even a magpie. Quite remarkably, in January we also caught six peregrine falcons with the symptoms. Most of the birds are so sick that they cannot be saved.”

Peregrine falcons are the fastest birds in the animal kingdom. The small, nimble birds are predatory creatures who primarily hunt larger birds, such as pigeons, ducks, and gulls. While the birds are more commonly spotted in the countryside, special efforts are made to conserve the birds of prey in the Belgian capital, where the birds are known to breed on tall buildings.

The falcons, like most other birds, are particularly susceptible to the bird flu virus. At the start of the outbreak last year, many peregrine falcons were known to have died in the UK as a result of the virus.

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“Peregrine falcons kill weak small birds, like ducks for example. That is a bird species which is often infected with the virus at the moment. So it literally passes from one bird to another when the diseased prey is eaten. That can have dramatic consequences for some species such as the peregrine falcon,” Janssen said.

Despite the large number of sick birds coming through the doors of the Nature Aid Centre, volunteers have managed to save some of the falcons, which are now recovering in outdoor cages. In 2022, 220 wild birds were found to be contaminated with bird flu in Belgium. Most sick animals were wild ducks, geese, and gulls, but also 40 birds of prey.

Bird flu rages in Europe

Unfortunately, the prognosis for most sick birds is not good. The current bird-flu pandemic has been raging for approximately three years. Experts already predict that this outbreak of the virus will be lengthy. Economists fear that the disease will impact commercial poultry, which would severely disrupt the food chain and lead to the mass culling of many animals.

For the infection of wild birds, Belgian authorities do not currently undertake extra precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. Nevertheless, the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) recommends a series of measures to stop the disease from spreading from nature to commercial avian livestock.

“We very strongly recommend preventative protection for chickens and birds as much as possible. The virus circulates strongly and is highly contagious and deadly for poultry. The easiest thing you can do as an individual is to cover your chicken runs with nets. That way, infected wild birds cannot make contact with your animals,” said Hélène Bonte, spokesperson for the FASFC.

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