AKP Special Edition: Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)

American Kestrel Partnership Special Edition
Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI):
What You Should Know

For those who are unaware, there’s a new viral disease currently spreading across North America. No, not COVID—we’re talking about Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), an avian disease that is causing concern for poultry farmers, zoos, and wildlife managers alike. Here’s what you need to know about HPAI, and what we as kestrel box monitors need to do to avoid contributing to the outbreak.
An outbreak of an Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI, is currently spreading across North America and poses a threat to dozens of bird species, including American Kestrels. Photo by Susan Supper; virus art via Pixabay.

What is HPAI?

HPAI stands for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. The term does not refer to a specific strain of avian influenza; rather, it is a broad term for any avian flu strain that can cause severe illness and death in chickens (though many bird species can be similarly affected). The current outbreak is caused by a virus of the H5N1 subtype.

Originating in Europe and first detected in North America in November 2021 in Newfoundland, the virus has since spread rapidly. As of 25 April 2022, it has been reported in over 40 bird species in all four major migratory flyways in North America, including 37 US states and 10 Canadian provinces and territories. It is likely present but as yet undetected in many more.

Unlike previous avian influenza outbreaks, this particular strain is abnormally prevalent in wild birds, a trait that has made this outbreak much more difficult to combat than those prior.

Detections of HPAI in North America as of 25 April 2022. Map produced by the United States Geologial Survey's National Wildlife Health Center.

How is HPAI spread?

The virus is spread through direct contact with infected birds, or through contact with feathers, droppings, or other bodily discharges. It can also be spread via people’s hands, shoes, clothing, vehicles, and equipment. One gram of excrement (about the size of a dime) can carry enough virus to infect one million birds. The virus can survive outside a host for up to two weeks in cool and damp conditions, and more than two months in cool water.

Which species are at risk from HPAI?

Waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, and other waterbirds frequently serve as reservoirs for HPAI and other avian influenza viruses, able to carry and shed them without developing symptoms. However, gamebirds, scavenging birds such as eagles and vultures, and other birds of prey are at high risk for serious illness and death from HPAI. Although as of 25 April 2022 no American Kestrel has tested positive in the United States for the virus during the current outbreak, other birds of prey have been hit hard, and it is thought the virus would be similarly lethal to kestrels.

As of 9 April 2022 only one human has been infected with this particular HPAI strain and developed no symptoms. The virus is not currently believed to be a threat to human health, but the possibility the virus could mutate and more readily infect humans in the future persists.

During the current outbreak, HPAI has been detected in dozens of bird species ranging from domestic poultry to waterfowl, vultures, eagles, and even pelicans. Photos by Matthew Danihel.

What are the symptoms of HPAI?

In species that develop clinical signs, infected birds have reduced energy levels and decreased food and water intake. Neurological symptoms such as a lack of coordination, a twisted or tilted neck, head tremors, and the inability to fly or stand are also very common. Swollen and/or purple faces and legs have been observed in some birds. While respiratory issues are common symptoms of human influenzas, this is not the case with HPAI; some birds may cough or develop a runny nose and eyes, but no respiratory symptoms are present in many cases. Death typically occurs within a week, and the mortality rate can be as high as 100% in some species. There is no known cure.

What should we do to limit potential spread?

As the HPAI outbreak continues to develop, it is likely that local health and wildlife authorities will come out with guidelines specific to their region. We advise all AKP partners to familiarize themselves with, and keep track of updates to, any HPAI-related guidelines provided by the overseeing agencies in your region and to follow this guidance as it pertains to your monitoring activity. This includes total cessation of monitoring activities if recommended to do so by your local health or wildlife management agency. The American Kestrel Partnership, and our parent organization The Peregrine Fund, have been in conversation with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture and developed these recommendations in accordance with their guidance.

Although the likelihood of one of our partners being infected with HPAI is extremely low, the only 100% safe way to avoid potential exposure to HPAI from kestrel box monitoring activity is to not monitor kestrel boxes. We encourage all AKP partners to consider the risk of potential exposure to HPAI when deciding whether to monitor their boxes this year, particularly those who may be immunocompromised. We recommend our partners consult with a health professional regarding potential exposure to HPAI and to take their health into account before monitoring kestrel boxes this year.

If you choose not to monitor your boxes this year, we support your decision and merely ask that you let us know so this can be taken into account during data analysis. Simply log in to our data entry portal, select the relevant nest box(es) from the “Observations” portal, and select the “COVID-19 or HPAI cancellation” option that tells us this nest will go unmonitored or be monitored less frequently than usual (see screenshot below). If you have questions about this process, please email us at

If you skip planned observations in 2022 due to HPAI-related concerns, please let us know by submitting cancelled observations and checking the "HPAI cancellation" box. This allows us to distinguish AKP partners who are no longer active vs. those who are merely limiting their monitoring activities in 2022 due to the outbreak.
Because the virus is spread through contact with infected droppings or other organic material, AKP partners should avoid spreading any organic material from one nest box to another at all costs. For partners who only monitor a single box, this is easy—as long as you don't come into contact with birds elsewhere (for example, if you keep chickens or ducks at home), you can monitor your boxes normally without the risk of spreading the virus.

For partners monitoring mulitple boxes, the simplest way to avoid spreading the virus is to avoid physically accessing boxes to monitor them. Many of our partners accomplish this by using a pole-mounted camera to view the box interior through the entrance hole. These “polecams” may be higher-tech setups using GoPros or borescope cameras, but others have simply duct-taped their smartphone to a pole and recorded a video of the box interior with equal success. If there is contact between the camera and the nest box, the camera should be disinfected in between each box using a 10% bleach solution, Rescue™, or another disinfectant labeled for use against avian influenza. For partners looking to keep things low-tech, checking the box interior by looking through the entrance hole rather than opening the box will significantly reduce risk. Whatever method you choose, we strongly recommend that all of our partners avoid opening their boxes during monitoring activity.

An AKP partner uses a "polecam" to monitor one of his nest boxes. We strongly recommend our partners use this or a similar method of monitoring boxes without opening them to avoid potentially spreading HPAI. Photo courtesy of Rick Folkening.
Partners who need to physically access nest boxes (for example, to check them without a camera, or to band nestlings) will need to take additional precautions to avoid spreading organic material from one box to another. This is especially important for box networks that also include Wood Duck boxes, because waterfowl are known reservoirs for HPAI. Any necessary equipment such as drills, banding pliers, etc. should be disinfected between each box. We recommend that partners wear disposable gloves when accessing a box, then use soap and water or hand sanitizer to disinfect their hands and arms and change any potentially contaminated articles of clothing or shoes (or replace covering PPE) in between boxes.

What should you do if you suspect a bird in your box
is infected with HPAI?

If you are in the United States and find a kestrel or other bird that you suspect is infected with HPAI, contact your state veterinarian (a full list can be found here) or the USDA (1-866-536-7593) for guidance. In Canada, contact the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative. Partners elsewhere should contact the appropriate health or wildlife authorities in your country. Do not transport potentially infected birds to a wildlife rehabilitator unless instructed to do so, as many wildlife rehabilitators are not currently accepting species at high risk for HPAI due to the potential for spreading the virus. When submitting your observation data from nest boxes where HPAI may be present to the AKP database, use the “Notes” field to indicate your suspicions.
If you find a kestrel or other bird in one of your boxes that you suspect may have HPAI, leave it where it is and contact the appropriate local heath or wildlife authority for guidance. Enter your findings in the "Notes" field as shown above when submitting your observations to our database.

Where can I learn more?

We thank all of our partners for their understanding and cooperation as we work through this difficult time together. For questions about how HPAI affects AKP protocol, contact us at; all other HPAI-related inquiries should be directed to your local health or wildlife authorities. We hope for continued health and safety—both for our human partners, and for the kestrels we all know and love—as 2022 rolls on.


With best wishes,

AKP Staff and Interns

Copyright © 2022 The Peregrine Fund, All rights reserved.

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