New Zealand prepares for threat of avian influenza as virus spreads to Antarctica

A highly pathogenic strain of avian flu has killed millions of mammals and birds around the globe killing millions of birds.

New avian arrivals flying in from Australia and Antarctica are being closely watched by New Zealand authorities as a highly pathogenic strain of bird flu (H5N1) continues to spread across the globe, killing tens of millions of birds in its wake.

At risk are the country’s beloved native birds – 82 per cent of which are already threatened with extinction – as well as the availability of popular foods like KFC, roast chicken and fried eggs.

The current strain has been spread globally by migrating birds since December, 2021 and Oceania remains the only region free of the disease, likely due to the sick birds dropping off as they try to make the massive trek Down Under. The same had been assumed for Antarctica, but a fortnight ago samples taken from predatory skua seabirds tested positive.

“We've got two major pathways that we're keeping an eye on. One is through Antarctica and the other one is through Australia. We're not judging either one more likely at the moment, but that's where we think it will be coming from,” Department of Conservation (DoC) technical advisor of ecology Bruce McKinlay told Yahoo News.

An East Asia and Australasia flyway map (inset). Flying over Sydney from a plane (background).
It's not just established migration pathways (left) that have authorities worried, individual birds or small flocks will sometimes trial a route. Source: Birdlife International/Getty

Key avian influenza facts

  • In the United States alone 82 million poultry and 9,169 wild birds have been affected

  • The risk to humans is still considered low, although there have been cases in Cambodia in 2024

  • It has been detected in mammals including dolphins, foxes, otters, mink, sea lions and seals.

Wild bird vaccinations being trialled on birds threatened with extinction

Wild birds in New Zealand are believed to carry little natural immunity to avian influenza, and the DoC began working with the Ministry for Primary Industries to trial a vaccine that’s used in domestic poultry overseas in five native species.

Among the birds being vaccinated are those at a high-risk of extinction. The full list includes the takahē, tūturuatu (shore plover), red-crowed kākāriki (a surrogate for kākāriki karaka), kakī (black stilt) and the kākāpō.

“We’ve established a team to do quite a lot of preparedness work. We know it’s coming but we’re not quite sure how or when,” McKinlay said.

Across the ditch in Australia, independent experts are also concerned about native bird species, issuing a warning in May 2023 that H5N1 could drive some species to extinction. Australia’s Department of Agriculture (DAFF), which is spearheading the nation’s preparedness efforts, confirmed with Yahoo it is monitoring vaccine programs overseas but it has no plans to conduct similar research itself.

Close up of a Takahē in long grass (right) and Kākāpō in captivity (left).
New Zealand is trialling a vaccine on species including the Takahē (right) and Kākāpō (left). Source: Getty

As well as being responsible for its own landmass, Australia also claims 42 per cent of Antarctica, a massive landmass that’s 80 per cent the size of its own mainland. Currently, H5N1 is confined to the western side of Antarctica, but scientists are unsure how it arrived there and how it will spread.

Elsewhere there has been around 30 per cent mortality in wild birds, but Spanish scientists are concerned it could be worse among penguins as they huddle tightly to withstand the cold as they raise their chicks.

It is a tsunami, but it's a tsunami that's rather unscoped in terms of size and potential impact.Bruce McKinlay, DoC

Odd birds arriving on New Zealand shores

When it comes to migratory birds, northern Australia is a popular stopover destination for birds flying from Asia to New Zealand. But it’s not just long-haul migratory species that pose a threat, McKinlay notes there is also a constant flow of “odd arrivals”.

“The more you look at it, the more you realise that birds are regularly crossing the Tasman as individuals or in small numbers, and just testing it out,” he said.

“In the last six weeks, we've had a Pacific heron turn up on the west coast of the South Island from Australia, we've had an Adélie penguin turn up from Antarctica, and we've got a number of crested penguins coming from the Sub-Antarctic islands.”

Hooded plovers on the shore.
Australia's wild birds like the endangered hooded plover have never faced an outbreak of avian flu. Source: Getty (File)

How is Australia preparing to combat bird flu?

Australia has fought off other strains of avian flu in poultry before, but the disease has never impacted wild birds. Few details have been made public about how it plans to tackle the disease if native species test positive, but authorities maintain they are "well prepared to respond to an avian influenza outbreak".

The department of environment (DCCEEW), which is working with DAFF on Australia’s response, confirmed with Yahoo it completed an expert assessment of the level of risk in 2022. It has also set up 44 cameras across its territory and East Antarctica, and those working on the ground are implementing biosecurity protocols to avoid close contact with wildlife or its faeces. Importantly, after H5N1 was detected in Antarctica, it reviewed response programs to combat the virus if it reaches stations or field camps.

“A monitoring program to detect viral incursion and future impact is being implemented through the Australian Antarctic Division’s Seabird Conservation Team, and specific protocols are in place for expeditioners working with or observing wildlife,” it said in a statement.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.