Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in Wild Birds, including Owls and other Raptors

What we know as of April 15, 2022

by Lauren Smith

You may have been hearing and reading about a very contagious strain of avian influenza that is currently spreading across North America. I have been reading heartbreaking articles about raptors and owls being brought to wildlife rehabilitation centers in distress, suffering from extreme neurological symptoms and either dying suddenly or needing to be humanely euthanized.

Some recent examples:

The disease is 90 to 100% fatal in raptors, according to the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center. Raptors may not show any symptoms or signs of infection until right before they die.

HPAI has been confirmed in Montana (on April 8, 2022) and all our neighboring states: Idaho ( on April 15, 2022), Wyoming and North Dakota (on March 30, 2022), and South Dakota (on March 6, 2022). It has also been found in wild birds in every province in Canada including British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, which border Montana to the north.

We here at ORI have not yet (as of April 15, 2022) seen anything that makes us suspicious in any of the owls we study in the wild here in NW Montana, but we are keeping a close eye out for anything unusual. When we do handle wild birds, our research protocol includes measures to mitigate the potential contamination or spread of disease between birds. All of our research is done on wild birds; we are not a rehab facility and do not keep or care for any captive birds.

ORI has close relationships with several raptor and wildlife rehabilitation centers in the area, and if we find a bird we suspect is ill we will immediately take it to receive care, if possible.

What is HPAI?

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) is a virus. There are many different strains, and some of them are more dangerous than others. The different strains of the virus are classified as either ‘low pathogenic’ or ‘high pathogenic,’ depending on how good they are at making domestic poultry sick.

The current strain affecting all of North America is “Eurasian strain (EA) highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1.” Most of the coverage you’ll read about it may call it simply avian flu, or HPAI.

The different strains of avian influenza are found mainly in waterfowl, like geese, ducks, and swans. Normally, these birds can carry the virus without any symptoms, and don’t seem to be badly affected by it. However, when poultry become infected, it causes high mortality.

How is it spread?

HPAI spreads in the feces and respiratory secretions of infected birds. It can also be easily transmitted on contaminated objects (an issue for poultry farmers, who can carry it on boots, clothes, or equipment). According to The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, HPAI can survive in aquatic environments as well as in cold and freezing temperatures.