NORTON SHORES, Mich. (WOOD) — The state believes that avian flu was the cause of the deaths of dozens of cormorants at Dune Harbor Park near Muskegon.

Megan Moriarty, a wildlife disease specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, told News 8 Friday that wildlife disease biologists collected four birds from the park in Norton Shores a couple of weeks ago. They were brought to the DNR’s wildlife disease lab, where samples were collected and submitted to the diagnostic lab.

Earlier this week, the DNR sent the samples to a national laboratory in Ames, Iowa. On Friday, the DNR received confirmation one of the birds had highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).
Another bird had tested negative for bird flu.

Still, Moriarty said it’s “highly likely the outbreak is due to the virus.”

“The fact we’ve had one positive animal of the two we’ve tested, I think it’s highly likely this outbreak is due to HPAI,” Moriarty said. “There have been other outbreaks of mortality events of cormorants and Caspian terns and gulls as well that have also tested positive for HPAI and have had relatively large numbers of die-offs.

“Given those circumstances, plus our positive tests, plus the fact we know HPAI is circulating in wild birds in Michigan and has been for the past several months, I think it’s highly likely the outbreak is due to this virus,” she continued.

In early June, a News 8 viewer, Jodie Diehl, reported a growing number of bird deaths at the park. She had found more than a dozen dead cormorants scattered for miles surrounding the lake. She also found several birds that were in the process of dying.

“They were just hanging on,” Diehl said at the time. “Their necks were wobbling. They were just swimming on the shoreline. Eyes looked kind of cloudy. They weren’t well.”

News 8 went to the park on June 4 and found three dead birds within 100 yards. News 8 alerted the DNR and the department ordered tests.

Based on calls received from the public, Moriarty believes at least 40 cormorants had died as of Friday.

Dune Harbor Park was partially opened to the public in March. The DNR is not recommending it be closed, but the department says people shouldn’t touch the birds.

“Our message with the DNR has been to limit interactions between the general public and direct contact with wild birds and wildlife in general,” Moriarty said. “Particularly if sick or dead birds are found, we certainly don’t recommend people handling them, picking them up.

“People should really not be handling any sick of dead birds,” she said. “That is the riskiest activity that someone could do, really.”

As long as people don’t touch the birds, the DNR does not believe there is any danger to the public or those who have been to the park.

“People are susceptible although the risk is low,” Moriarty said. “Part of what keeps that risk low is maintaining some distance between yourself and sick or dead wild birds.

“The risk is low as long as people are using common-sense,” Moriarty concluded.

The DNR is continuing to urge people to report any sightings of dead or sick birds to the Eyes in the Field website.

“That data can really help track the movement of this disease in wild populations,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty said the DNR doesn’t plan to euthanize the rest of the birds in the park. In May, tens of thousands of turkeys at a Muskegon County farm that had an avian flu outbreak were killed to prevent the spread of the illness.

“In the wild environment, it’s really not fruitful and not something we have an interest in doing mostly because it won’t do much to stop the spread and we want to give birds a chance,” Moriarty said. “The best thing to do is to have people maintain their distance.”

Diehl, who previously told News 8 about the dying birds, said she has seen hundreds of cormorants gathered on an island at Dune Harbor Park. Moriarty said behavior like that makes cormorants particularly susceptible to bird flu.

“Any time that a large number of birds congregate, that just gives an opportunity for this virus to spread amongst them. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of virus out there in the wild bird population right now.”