A confirmed outbreak of West Nile Virus near Coaldale this summer claimed the lives of a quarter of the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre’s birds and has the organization facing an uncertain future.

Over the period of 30 days beginning in August, heartbroken staff and volunteers at Canada’s largest birds of prey facility watched helplessly as illness spread through the facility. Birds began to experience seizures and eventually a total of 15 birds, including bald eagles, snowy owls, great grey owls, burrowing owls, a red tailed hawk and a saw whet owl, perished.

“It’s gut wrenching for us,” said Colin Weir, managing director of the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation. “It’s like losing family members.”

The birds that died had been housed at the centre in areas nearest to ponds and staff attempted to mitigate the risk by moving some of the surviving birds indoors at night.

Weir says he notified the Town of Coaldale of the suspected outbreak of West Nile Virus and was instructed not to take his concerns public until the presence of the mosquito-spread virus was confirmed. Weir says the Town filled several ponds and Alberta Health Service issued a warning regarding mosquito bites without referencing the potential presence virus.

After several weeks, tests confirmed the birds had died as a result of exposure to West Nile Virus. Officials with the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre suspect the outbreak was exacerbated by the nearby Malloy Basin Storm Water Project that created pools of stagnant water that are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes including carriers of the virus.

The Mayor of Coaldale, Kim Craig, says the town shares in the grief. “We were very understandably upset to learn of the loss of those birds.”  Craig adds that several factors may have contributed to the outbreak, including hot weather, and there have been discussions on a water management strategy to prevent it from happening again.

The organization is encouraging the public to donate to the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation. The tragedy claimed some of its most valuable and high profile birds that were pillars of environmental learning programs as well as younger birds that were expected to be the future of the demonstrations.

With files from CTV’s Terry Vogt