There is no evidence that birds are impacted by the COVID-19 virus.
Dr. Victoria Hall, former veterinarian epidemiologist at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., told me that in early January.
She is now the new executive director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.
In Washington, she was on the Smithsonian COVID-19 task force. She was one of two public health officers working to protect both visitors and animals from the virus.
"The COVID virus came from an animal," Hall said, "and it can go from humans back to animals."
At the Raptor Center, precautions such as good ventilation and mask-wearing protect both the staff and the birds, she said.
"We're looking at how COVID is transferred to animals," she said. She was clear that there is no evidence birds are being infected or are particularly susceptible to the virus.
Hall replaces Dr. Julia Ponder, who now has an expanded leadership role with the College of Veterinary Medicine. She will guide special projects such as the Partners for Wildlife program.
I asked Hall how climate change is affecting birds, raptors in particular.
"Raptors are incredible indicators of environmental health," she said. "They are very mobile, very visible." Climate impact is there, Hall said. She is certain of that.
"But we can't tease out climate alone" from all of the data the center collects, she said. The center looks to other research by partner organizations like National Audubon for specific climate information.
Some things are evident, she said. "We're seeing climate impact on migration and breeding, shifts in where raptors are at given times.
"Raptors will follow food sources, moving if prey moves. Bald eagles and salmon," she said as an example. If water temperature caused salmon to move, the eagles would follow.
Species a factor
Impact can vary by species. Some raptors are generalists when it comes to prey. Red-tailed hawks hunt small mammals ranging from mice to rabbits, birds as large as pheasants, also snakes, bats, insects and carrion.
Cooper's hawks, on the other hand, use songbirds as their diet base.
"Raptors are good indicators of change," she said, "because they are at the top of the food chain."
If climate affects habitat, that change will affect insects which in turn could affect raptor prey. "Climate asks for changes quickly, a test of survival of the fittest."
For migrant birds the impact would be more likely at breeding locations. Hall pointed out that change is not consistent in every habitat type.
This is complicated, Hall explained. There are gaps in our knowledge of how climate fits into problems raptors might have.
"Concerns about climate and its impact on biodiversity are global," she said. "And change is not consistent across habitat type.
"Climate acts as an amplifier of impact. We expect animals to change over time," Hall said, "but climate has accelerated this, a human-caused acceleration."
Species that adapt quickly will do better than those that don't, she said. Adapters will thrive in new climate conditions.
COVID impact on center
While COVID may not be affecting birds, it is affecting the Raptor Center. Its building is currently closed to the public, but the center offers digital and outdoor programs, including a virtual field trip and Zoom meetings with raptors. Learn more at raptor.umn.edu.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com.