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Colorado falconer warns other bird owners after beloved falcon dies of avian flu

Will McDonough said it took two days after potential exposure before his falcon, Vesta, died.
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Posted at 9:07 PM, Feb 10, 2023

BERTHOUD, Colo. — The McDonough's little slice of paradise off Parrish Road has been the perfect space to raise a family and fly their falcons.

"I have land in this area to fly around. We do wild hacking, that means I let him go and they go up on a training post and sit around for basically hours a day. Then I call them in on a lure," said William McDonough.

McDonough is a master falconer, and has worked with birds and hawks for 18 years.

"They brought me so much comfort. Being a veteran and suffering a lot of trauma, I look into the eyes of these things, and they bring me peace and solace that I can't get from anything else," he said.

If he had to choose a favorite, it'd probably be Vesta, a rescued peregrine falcon that eventually became his best friend. McDonough has special software that can track his birds' flights and where they stop.

"It was on Monday when she was flying on that perch. I noticed Wednesday that she was sick," said McDonough, who immediately called his veterinarian. "The earliest she could see me was at 9:30 Thursday morning. Vesta died by 10:30 on her exam table. The death was horrible."

RELATED: Denver warns residents to not touch dead birds in city parks because of avian flu

Records from Vesta's necropsy with Colorado State University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories showed the bird tested positive for the avian influenza H5 subtype, which has been found in birds all across the country.

"The state head veterinary that I've been working with, they all say the same thing. It's highly pathogenic," said McDonough.

He's now needing to keep all of the birds on his property quarantined, giving them no chance of interacting with any wild birds. His rooster is now being kept in a shed, and the other hawks and falcons are being kept in their living room.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife says this strain has spread to and killed several different types of birds, and has been deadly when spread to certain mammals. It is uncommon for the disease to be transmitted to humans.

RELATED: Bird flu linked to deaths of black bear, mountain lion in Colorado

As of Friday, there have been more than 6,100 reported cases of avian flu across the United States, according to the USDA. Of those, 164 cases have been reported in Colorado.

McDonough hopes more resources or possible vaccines become approved for veterinarians in the U.S. soon, but in the meantime, he is warning other bird owners to take precautions seriously.

"Don't let your poultry out of their coop if you can handle it. Prevent any shared water sources and food," he suggested. "Some of these falcons are worth tens of thousands of dollars. Mine are all rescue, hand-me-down birds. But the heartache is the biggest pain. I miss Vesta a lot."


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