There is nothing like the sound of a goose (Niska) to stir deep emotions and memories in a Cree person from the James Bay coast. Recently, I heard the first sign of spring in the distant calls of geese high in the sky. I think I am like most people from up the coast, at this time of year I am just anxiously waiting to hear and see them fly overhead in a familiar V-formation. When it happened, I distinctly picked out their calls in the midst of the ever present hum of the town. I ran out the door and scanned the blue sky, carefully searching knowing that even if I could hear them, they may just be tiny specs in the sky. I had no trouble finding a flock of a dozen low flying geese in a loose formation. I felt a sense of relief in witnessing the return of these geese. It means that winter is finally over, the taste of goose will soon be on our plates and the sun warms us a little more every day.
This year, it’s a little different. Now we have to think about a disease called H5N1, or the Avian Flu, that is affecting birds in half the world and, it is thought, will eventually affect those in North America. All winter, the news media tracked the bird flu all across Asia, then to the Middle East, into Africa and finally to Europe. It seemed inevitable. First the domesticated poultry became sick, and then it transferred over to wild birds of all sorts. When that started to happen, the flu slowly crept west from its origin in undeveloped countries in Asia to finally make it to Central and Western Europe in the early part of this year.
There is cause for concern but the main point is that the bird flu has the potential to become a new disease that may be dangerous for humans. This means that there is no immediate danger to being around birds that are not infected. The simple explanation is that the H5N1 bird flu is passing from bird to bird in what seems to be a contagious disease. Part of the reason it is so contagious is that most infected birds are domesticated ones which are housed and kept in close quarters on poultry farms. The danger is that in rare cases this disease is passing on to humans who have come into close contact with infected birds. The fear is that this flu will pass from bird to people and mutate into a new disease that will be spread from human to human.
There has been much hysteria around the potential Avian Flu pandemic and that has caused a lot of distress and worry in First Nation communities where so many rely on the annual spring goose hunt. The question on everyone’s mind up north is, if the bird flu is making many types of birds sick, are geese and snow geese going to be infected? Will they be dangerous to handle or even to eat if they are sick?
The answer was provided in part by the Canadian Wildlife Service in a presentation made to the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN) winter assembly last March in Thunder Bay. The service spokesperson stated that the annual spring goose hunt for this year was safe. Although snow geese and Canada geese can become infected, no sign of the bird flu has been found in migrating populations that have been regularly monitored in north eastern Canada and in Alaska. There seems to be no immediate danger to hunters and gatherers in the north. Most reports on the Avian Flu have shown that infections to humans were caused by individuals’ continuous close contact with infected household poultry flocks. No evidence has been found for direct transmission of the disease to humans from wild birds.
Even though the Canadian Wildlife Service has made the announcement that bird hunting is safe, they have also asked hunters to take precautions and safety measures if they do encounter situations with possible infected birds. The service provided advice for hunters to: not eat any birds that may appear to be sick; wash hands regularly; get a flu shot; don’t eat, drink or smoke while preparing a bird for consumption; cook birds well (as all evidence indicates that thorough cooking will kill the virus) and if you become sick to go and see a doctor.
Even though we have been reassured of the safety of the bird hunt, a dark cloud seems to have been cast over the traditional practice of the annual spring goose hunt. We know it is safe for now and we can only hope and pray it stays that way.