Update (March 23): DEC Public Information Officer Lori Severino tells The Ithaca Voice that of the 6,600 pheasants housed at the Reynolds Game Farm in Ithaca, “at least” 500 of them have died just in the last three days as of Wednesday evening. Severino added that the number is still increasing as of Thursday morning.

There have been two positive cases of avian flu found on Cornell’s campus recently, according to Krysten Schuler, an assistant research professor in public and ecosystem health, in a skunk and a Canadian goose. Both were wild and not part of Cornell’s animal population.

Original story (March 22):

ITHACA, N.Y.—According to a memo distributed by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the bird population at the Reynolds Game Farm in Ithaca is currently under investigation for a possible Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak.

The memo states that there was an investigation initiated on March 20 after “suspicious deaths” were detected. The Reynolds Game Farm is a facility owned and operated by the DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife to supply pheasants for legal hunting across New York State, located on Game Farm Road in eastern Ithaca near the East Ithaca Recreation Way. It is the only pheasant propagation facility in the state.

“Initial test results indicate a possible outbreak of the H5N1 avian influenza virus,” stated the memo. “DEC is working closely with animal health experts at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory to determine next steps at the farm.”

If an outbreak is confirmed, this would be the 14th known outbreak of bird flu in New York State in 2022-2023, according to this USDA map. There have already been just over 10,000 birds impacted by the outbreak overall in the state, though that means the birds were present on a premises where an infection was confirmed, not that they were actually infected.

The announcement does not disclose how many deaths spurred the investigation. The risk to humans remains low, according to the CDC, as infections are rare and symptoms in humans are primarily mild. There has previously been avian flu found in wild birds in Tompkins County in 2022, according to the DEC, though it is not clear when or where that was detected.

Requests for more details from the DEC were not immediately returned, though this story will be updated when they are. A request for information on any possible crossover contamination with any Cornell animal populations is also pending, though that was not mentioned in the DEC’s announcement.

Pheasant hunting season doesn’t begin until the fall, though it is currently the beginning of the propagation activities and it is not clear what the impact will be on the pheasant population at the farm. The facility distributes 30,000 adult pheasants each year, “adult” meaning the pheasants are at least 18 weeks old.

“HPAI A(H5N1) virus has been circulating among birds and poultry in different parts of the world for many years and continuing to evolve into different groups that are referred to as clades,” according to the CDC. “The current clade of H5N1 virus, called clade, appears well-adapted to spread efficiently among wild birds and poultry in many regions of the world and was first identified in wild birds in the United States in January 2022. Since then, this current clade […] has been detected in wild birds in all 50 states and has caused bird outbreaks in 47 states affecting more than 58 million commercial poultry and backyard flocks.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief at The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.org.