Kyle Van Why is on the front lines in an attempt to track where diseases like the avian flu are moving through wild animal populations.
And on an overcast but mild day last week, the wildlife disease biologist for the USDA Wildlife Services made his way to Lititz Springs Park on a mission to capture dozens of ducks to test for disease.
Van Why had his trap set up around 8:45 a.m. on Friday, consisting of a tasty pile of corn sitting in front of a net launcher triggered by a blank .308 Winchester rifle cartridge. With one pull of a trigger around 9 a.m., more than 50 ducks were captured underneath the 30-foot net launched from the contraption.
Van Why said the trick to using the net launcher is to have few humans around to scare the birds away, especially people taking their dogs for an early morning walk in the park. It also helps to have a bird population conditioned to eat food from humans, just like the hundreds of ducks that populate Lititz Springs Park.
“There’s a science to it,” Van Why said. “You just can’t throw it out there.”
While Van Why’s use of the net launcher is novel to the curious onlooker, his work with the device is necessary for his testing. He said he can capture anywhere from 30 to 100 birds at one time under the net, allowing him to put them in crates and pull them out one at a time to take swab tests of their bills and their bottoms.
Van Why said he looks for wild birds as opposed to domestic varieties because the domestic ducks tend to stay in one location, while species like mallards are more prone to move around to different locations through migration and have a greater potential to spread diseases. Once the swabs are collected, Van Why releases each duck back into the park.
The swab samples are then sent to a lab for testing.
“It gives us an idea on what influenza strains are in the environment,” Van Why said. “Ducks naturally carry influenza. And this year is heightened because we have a high pathogenic strain, which is really affecting poultry. And that’s the concern.”
Van Why said wild bird testing has been used by the USDA as an “early warning system” to see if diseases like the avian flu have made their way into a region. He said the tests can determine what percentage of the wild population are carriers, focusing on ducks because they’re the “prime species” to find avian flu if it exists.
In the latest influenza strain, Van Why said, more than 60 different wildlife species nationwide have tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza.
Last year, millions of birds were killed on at least eight farms in Lancaster County after the highly pathogenic avian influenza strain was detected in local commercial flocks. The USDA confirmed Pennsylvania’s first positive case in Lancaster County on April 16 and impacted more than 3.5 million birds in the county over the year.
Van Why said nationally the USDA has still been finding the high path avian flu in wild birds through hunter harvested and net-caught birds.
“It’s been popping up here and there with samples that we’ve submitted,” Van Why said.
Van Why said part of the problem with waterfowl is that they can be asymptomatic while still carrying the disease. He said people walking in areas where birds are located can then carry the disease on their feet and then transmit it to barns or backyard flocks if they’re not careful. He said he tells people to be cautious when they are around poultry and waterfowl.
“You don’t know that those birds are sick when you’re out here walking,” Van Why said. “They could be spreading the virus to the public who’s walking here, and someone could accidentally transmit it someplace else.”
The USDA has a national mandate to collect disease samples for certain diseases of national concern, Van Why said, including avian influenza. The mandate requires him to collect samples seasonally and regionally across the country, and it’s his job to figure out how to collect the samples.
Van Why said he works with the Pennsylvania Game Commission during their banding programs at different times of the year to collect samples. But during the winter he tends to use the net launcher because he can collect dozens of birds at one time, allowing him to fill his quota of up to 400 bird tests in a season.
“Live capture is a method that we use quite often, and I use this because I can get 30 birds at one site,” Van Why said. “And then I can go to another site and get 30 birds all around their area.”
Van Why said right now he’s focusing his sampling on the Susquehanna watershed, which is a large area to test. He said the net launcher allows him to easily set up in one location and then move on to another portion of the state to collect more samples on consecutive days.
Van Why said parks like the one in Lititz are “integral” to how he collects samples because of the large populations of ducks in one place. He said he took samples in the same park last year.
“I call them up and say, ‘Hey, I’m wondering, can I catch ducks?’” Van Why said. “I have to explain the process, and most are very receptive.”
On Friday, Van Why had two helpers, Abby Zoltick and Kristopher Smith, who are welfare residents with the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center for veterinary medicine. The pair helped collect the ducks, take samples and then release them.
Smith, who is a poultry welfare veterinarian, said he was learning valuable lessons from Van Why on his collection and testing process.
“It’s nice to be able to see from the other side, because usually I’m in the barns,” Smith said “It’s great to be able to come out here and see all the work that he does to improve our industry.”
Van Why said having cooperative efforts between wildlife biologists and veterinarians working in commercial poultry operations are important to work on ways to reduce wild bird risks and how to handle emergency situations when a disease is identified in a population. He said he was deployed several times last year in Lancaster County as the high path avian flu ravaged poultry operations, trying to assess the wild bird risks and helping keep infected sites safe.
“Avian flu is a big, big issue this year, and Lancaster County was at the heart of it,” Van Why said.