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A female adult northern harrier feeds on one of at least five dead birds found on the ice at Stearns Lake near Broomfield on Jan. 4, 2023. It's not clear if these dead birds had avian flu, but scenes like these and the potential for spreading the devastating virus are playing out across Colorado, wildlife officials and raptor watchers warn. (Dana Bove, Front Range Eagle Studies, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s worst-ever avian flu outbreak has now resulted in nearly 6.4 million poultry deaths and is increasingly crossing over into wild birds and killing bald eagles and other precious raptors in what wildlife watchers call “the stuff of bad dreams.” 

The mass slaughter of egg-laying flocks has decimated the commercial egg market in the state, with every large producer now affected after a spread of the outbreak in December. Wildlife officials say they are overwhelmed by reports of carcasses in the wild and have limited testing of dead birds in order to concentrate efforts in the most impacted areas. 

Colorado agriculture and wildlife officials say they have no way to stop the flu’s spread among migratory birds, and expect waves of deaths to continue through early winter until birds settle into winter grounds. Mass die-offs are likely to pick up again in the spring as flocks of snow geese, Canada geese and other common birds head back north. 

Wildlife officials mourned the first death of a tagged and tracked bald eagle last month, from among Colorado’s resurgent but still tenuous population of nesting bald eagles totaling 250 to 300 pairs statewide. 

“I​t’s definitely somewhat demoralizing, especially to be losing these numbers of birds and in so many locations,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife avian researcher Reesa Conrey said. “I know our wildlife officers and our wildlife health staff are overwhelmed, quite frankly, with just the sheer number of reports and in all the cases that they would like to respond to.” 

Bird watchers and volunteer trackers are watching their favorite nesting pairs with dread, in fear of what rare raptors are ingesting every time they land on an animal carcass to feed. Dana Bove, founder of Front Range Nesting Bald Eagle Studies, said recent news of eagle deaths from avian flu in Colorado are literally “the stuff of my bad dreams.” 

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has mapped out all the locations of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI, outbreaks in Colorado on its site.

Domestic bird slaughter hits egg market hard 

Consumers continue to see the impact of the bird flu’s spread in Colorado grocery stores. 

Egg supplies have been supplemented by shipments from other states, but recent outbreaks have hit producers in Kansas, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, California and Oregon, Colorado Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Olga Robak said. 

Egg production in Colorado plummeted to a meager 41.1 million eggs in October — or about one-third the number of eggs from earlier months. The loss of production tracked the mass slaughter of laying flocks in a spring spike in the flu outbreak, and then again in the fall as waterfowl migration accelerated the spread. 

Colorado’s 6 million egg-laying chickens typically produce about 1.56 billion eggs per year. In 2022, that number fell to less than 1 billion eggs. After slaughters of 260,000 and 1.35 million birds in Weld County in December, Colorado has now seen essentially its entire commercial egg flock wiped out in less than a year. 

Nationwide, 57.8 million birds in 47 states have either died or been culled due to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The previous record was set in 2015 when the avian flu outbreak killed off 50.5 million birds in 21 states.

Meanwhile, the price of eggs continued to rise in the fall. According to the Consumer Price Index, a dozen large Grade A eggs cost $3.59 a dozen in November, more than double the price a year ago.

The devastating virus overshadowed other factors that caused a spike in egg prices in recent years. For some local farmers, chicken feed costs are up 75% since before the pandemic, said Chris Sramek, with High Plains Eggs, a co-op that includes farms in Colorado and Kansas. The war in Ukraine has meant farmers can’t buy Ukrainian peas and soybeans to feed animals and have had to scramble for alternatives.

There’s also higher transportation and delivery costs, limited supply of egg cartons and cold weather, which impacts egg production. That’s all caused farmers to raise prices just to cover the additional costs.

“This year cuts the cake,” Sramek said. “That $6 a dozen for a local egg farm is probably right on for the cost of a small producer. We’ve got a little more scale so we can make the numbers a little better. My spreadsheet is showing around $5.21 to $5.50. But that’s at cost.”

There are other costs to get eggs to consumers. A dozen eggs are likely more expensive in the store. At Natural Grocers, which has a customer loyalty program that subsidizes its free-range eggs, there’s now a limit of two dozen per customer and the company just raised its members-only minimum price by $1 to $2.99 per dozen, starting Jan. 10. 

“Freight and shipping costs have tripled, in many cases from $300 per pallet to $1,000 per pallet, making shipping anything other than a full truckload impossible,” said Christie Pettys, Natural Grocers’ product standards manager.  “(And) packaging costs have skyrocketed as well with a more than 55% increase in the last 18 months. Add in the recent weather, and wow.”

Coolers that are typically stocked with fresh eggs were empty on Dec. 26, 2022, at the King Soopers store in Lafayette. A few cartons of egg products and packages of hard-boiled eggs still were available. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

High Plains Eggs farms weren’t impacted by avian flu. They’re actually expanding. But that means they’re competing to buy pullets, or young female chickens that need about another 10 weeks to get to full-size egg production. There’s a shortage of baby chicks because of high demand to replace slaughtered flocks.

“The avian flu not only knocked out production layers but the pullets, the baby chicks. We put an order in September and you can’t get any until July,” he said. “It’s like with the trucks. If you want to get a refrigerated truck now, you’ve got to wait a year or two. That doesn’t work. This makes me wonder every day what’s going to happen? What’s going to break? What are we going to have to deal with?”

Raptor rescues trying to “play the long game”

Wildlife officials and observers are more and more concerned about the crossover of flu into limited populations of raptors and other wild birds. Snow goose and Canada goose flocks are robust, and can likely recover the loss of a few thousand birds at a time, like those recorded in Eastern Plains counties. But an additional threat to species like bald eagles, which number only in the hundreds statewide, strains conservation efforts. 

Rocky Mountain Raptor Program rehabilitation coordinator Mike Tincher said the raptors most affected by the outbreak appear to be red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, two species that have been doing well in the state. The injured birds that Rocky Mountain Raptor Program picks up all get swabbed and tested for avian flu infection, but with limited resources and personnel, they can’t cover every case, Tincher said. 

The full scope of the outbreak in wild birds might be worse.

“​​With the amount of birds that we’re seeing, we know that’s only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Because there’s birds that are probably being impacted — raptors that are being impacted — that are dying, that nobody’s seeing.” 

Wildlife agencies will continue to publish updates on the situation online for anyone concerned, Tincher said. Colorado Parks and Wildlife asks residents who find more than three dead larger-sized birds, such as waterfowl or raptors, to report them, but not handle the carcasses. They also warn bird watchers to not go out on the ice to investigate or handle any carcasses, complicating bird rescue with human rescues. 

Transmission of avian flu to humans is almost nonexistent, but remains possible, wildlife officials say. But humans can transmit the virus to birds or animals. Tincher said he’s been able to keep his backyard chicken coop healthy by taking proper safety precautions and changing clothing after he returns home from work with the raptors.

Rehabilitators like himself are helping as many birds as they can, Tincher said, but since this disease isn’t treatable the outbreak will likely have to run its course. Time will tell how well wild bird populations will manage.

“Any good virus won’t kill everything that comes in contact with it because it loses its ability to propagate,” he said. “Will this change, and temper, and not be as lethal to raptors? We don’t know yet. Right now, we’re playing the long game.”

Wildlife watchers would like more testing 

Overrun by calls about carcasses, state wildlife researchers are now limiting testing for their winter season. Once they have a positive test in a species in one county, they will assume that species is in danger and not test more of those birds until the spring migration season begins, Conrey said. 

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Bove, the volunteer researcher, worries that sharply limited state counting and testing will miss important information about where infected waterfowl are mixing with raptor populations, and how the virus spreads around Colorado. 

“While there are volunteer groups in the Front Range that do regular winter raptor survey routes, there is no currently organized effort to count dead waterfowl, what type, where and the date,” Bove said. “This type of information could go into an organized database, but to my knowledge, nobody has organized such an effort.”

Even though the state can’t promise all carcasses will be tested, Conrey said, researchers still want reports from the public. 

“We’re still interested in logging all those reports because it gives us a better sense of the scope of the disease, where it is, and how much of an issue it is, and what species are being reported,” she said. 

Bove, for his group’s part, wishes for a clearer focus on the threat to wild birds. 

“I think on the research end, a lot more could be done in our state,” he said. 

Bird lovers carry on with celebrations 

Some of the more organized celebrants of wild birds in Colorado are moving forward with plans while keeping one eye on state updates. 

Jessica Medina is the director of the High Plains Snow Goose Festival in Lamar, a celebration of local heritage and wildlife — specifically the snow geese stopping in Colorado on their southern migration — that will mark its 20th anniversary in February. She said that although the avian flu outbreak is on her radar, she isn’t worried about it being a problem.

“It’s not something that we’re going to cancel a festival over,” she said.

While there have been large die-offs in the thousands for snow geese in the latest spread of the outbreak, the migratory flocks of the birds that Colorado is famous for are so large they should not be impacted. 

And even if they were affected, festival attendees would be able to have fun no matter how much of the flock makes an appearance, Medina said.

“If there’s 1,000 to 10,000 geese less than what they’re expecting, it’s still a sight to behold, and it’s still entertaining for them, and it’s still educational,” she said. “And there’s a lot of great things to do.”

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: booth@coloradosun.com Twitter: @MBoothDenver

Tamara Chuang

Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at coloradosun.com/getww. Contact her at cosun.com/heyww,...