Evaluating the role of wild songbirds or rodents in spreading avian influenza virus across an agricultural landscape


Background. Avian influenza virus (AIV) infections occur naturally in wild bird populations and can cross the wildlife-domestic animal interface, often with devastating impacts on commercial poultry. Migratory waterfowl and shorebirds are natural AIV reservoirs and can carry the virus along migratory pathways, often without exhibiting clinical signs. However, these species rarely inhabit poultry farms, so transmission into domestic birds likely occurs through other means. In many cases, human activities are thought to spread the virus into domestic populations. Consequently, biosecurity measures have been implemented to limit human-facilitated outbreaks. The 2015 avian influenza outbreak in the United States, which occurred among poultry operations with strict biosecurity controls, suggests that alternative routes of virus infiltration may exist, including bridge hosts: wild animals that transfer virus from areas of high waterfowl and shorebird densities. Methods. Here, we examined small, wild birds (songbirds, woodpeckers, etc.) and mammals in Iowa, one of the regions hit hardest by the 2015 avian influenza epizootic, to determine whether these animals carry AIV. To assess whether influenza A virus was present in other species in Iowa during our sampling period, we also present results from surveillance of waterfowl by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Unites Stated Department of Agriculture. Results. Capturing animals at wetlands and near poultry facilities, we swabbed 449 individuals, internally and externally, for the presence of influenza A virus and no samples tested positive by qPCR. Similarly, serology from 402 animals showed no antibodies against influenza A. Although several species were captured at both wetland and poultry sites, the overall community structure of wild species differed significantly between these types of sites. In contrast, 83 out of 527 sampled waterfowl tested positive for influenza A via qPCR. Discussion. These results suggest that even though influenza A viruses were present on the Iowa landscape at the time of our sampling, small, wild birds and rodents were unlikely to be frequent bridge hosts.

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