Dear EarthTalk: How does growing human population, and its resultant landscape changes, affect the flight paths of migratory birds that might carry diseases?
—Ronnie Washines, Toppenish, WA
As human population numbers grow, oceans of people seem to spread out into every conceivable environment—even the forests and estuaries used for eons by migratory birds as nutrient-rich stopovers on their longer annual journeys between feeding areas and birthing grounds.
Of course, more human development means fewer habitats suitable for such birds of passage (and other wildlife) as we “pave paradise
” and put up parking lots. But tired and hungry birds may not have the wherewithal or instinctual coding to seek out alternative resting areas, so they make do with habitat crowded and compromised by human incursion. Close proximity to avian life hasn’t presented too big of a problem for people in the past, but new concerns about the spread of bird flu (the H5N1 virus) via infected migratory birds (which presumably infect local populations of domestic birds) does have some scientists worried that persistent human expansion could indirectly lead to a disease pandemic of global proportions.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the role of migratory birds in spreading bird flu is not well understood, but we do know that wild waterfowl are a “natural reservoir” of mostly harmless H5 and H7 influenza A viruses. But recent research suggests that these viruses may be mutating into more “pathogenic” (disease producing) forms, such as H5N1 that can “jump the species barrier” and infect people and other animals. “Recent events make it likely that some migratory birds are now directly spreading the H5N1 virus in its highly pathogenic form,” reports WHO, adding that further spread to new areas is expected. It is unlikely that the bird flu making headlines a few years ago (the H5N1 strain), could lead to a human pandemic. The vast majority who got sick had direct contact with infected birds.