This weekend, a massive bout of avian cholera is suspected in the deaths of more than 2,000 snow geese that feel dead from the sky in Idaho on their way to their Alaskan nesting grounds. Dozens of Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials and volunteers took to the field to retrieve and incinerate the remains of the snow geese before they could infect other predators.
Although originally biologists were awaiting the results of what killed the geese to be confirmed by the state wildlife lab, due to the manner of their death, where the bird literally just fell out of the sky, avian cholera was suspect immediately. This highly contagious disease is caused by bacteria that can survive in soil and water for up to four months.
Humans face a very small risk of contracting avian cholera, but a more immediate threat is to the other wildlife in the vicinity. About 20 bald eagles were spotted in the area of the corpse, meaning that they too could have contracted this disease from eating tainted meat. Although other predators may be able to ingest the corpses safely, they run also the risk of helping spread the bacteria to other susceptible fowl like chickens, ducks and other varieties of geese.
It is not known where the snow geese - named for their white plumage and for breeding in the far northern corners of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia - contracted the disease, but judging by the incubation period and how long avian cholera takes to become fatal, it is suspect that they contracted the disease somewhere on their journey over the American Southwest.
Although this is one shocking example, outbreaks of avian cholera occur periodically to snow geese on their migration, but rarely on such a large scale. As it stands now, avian cholera is the most infectious disease affecting waterfowl in North America according to the U.S. Geological Survey.