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News & features archive, 2009


Satellite tracking wild birds to study links with avian influenza

January 30, 2009 ľ In an effort to better understand the role of migratory birds in the ecology and epidemiology of avian influenza, FAO and a number of major international partners are tracking the movement of wild ducks via satellite to reveal more information about the linkages between the migration of wild birds and their involvement, if any, in the spread of avian influenza viruses.

After several years of planning, the Department of Microbiology of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Asia Ecological Consultants (AEC), Worldwide Fund For Nature Hong Kong (WWF-HK), US Geological Survey (USGS), and the EMPRES-Wildlife Unit at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with support from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Hong Kong SAR government, China, have recently launched a study in wild bird migration from Hong Kong.

Wild birds are often blamed for the spread avian influenza, but little is currently known about their migratory routes and whether they are connected to the spread of avian influenza. In an effort to better understand the role of migratory birds in the ecology and epidemiology of avian influenza, FAO, HKU, WWF-HK and partners trapped, sampled and marked 24 wild ducks with satellite transmitters in mid-December 2008. Swab samples collected from these birds were tested for avian influenza viruses and Newcastle disease and found to be negative.

The partners expect that the project, which uses satellite technology to track the movements of the marked wild ducks, will reveal more information about the linkages between the migration of wild birds and their involvement, if any, in the spread of avian influenza viruses. Small satellite radios, attached to these ducks with backpacks, record and transmit GPS locations to provide detailed ecological information about their movements. Scientists will be able to determine whether bird locations coincide with outbreaks of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) along their migration pathways.

Past ringing studies have demonstrated that ducks from Hong Kong, specifically Northern Pintail and Eurasian Wigeon, migrate to northeastern China and the Russian Far East in the spring. However, little information exists about their migration routes, stop-over sites, timing or final destination.

The study is important to Hong Kong because the Inner Deep Bay wetland, which is listed as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, provides both wintering and stop-over grounds to waterbirds migrating along the East Asian Australasian flyway. Last year, around 89,000 migratory and resident waterbirds were recorded during winter from the Deep Bay area and 20,000 shorebirds during the spring/autumn migration periods. To date, over 30,000 samples from healthy wild birds collected by HKU from the Deep Bay area since 2003 have tested negative for HPAI viruses.

Movements of the tagged ducks can be viewed online by visiting the USGS website.

For media enquiries, contact Ms Winnie Lam (Tel: 2809 5102 / 9107 1676) or Mr Terence Poon (Tel: 2819 9305 / 9316 6267) of the University of Hong Kong Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine.

Visit the Hong Kong website for press photos and supplementary information.

This map shows the movements for a male Eurasian Wigeon from
10 December 2008 to 10 January 2009. The X marks the capture location.
The numbers and letters refer to the accuracy of the locations.


The map shows the latest location for all birds marked in Hong Kong.
Each bird is represented with a different coloured symbol.
The numbers and letters refer to the accuracy of the location.

More information on telemetry and wild birds can be found in the FAO wildlife section.