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Weather radar helps track avian flu

Weather radar helps track avian flu
Same weather radar technology used to predict rain now offers ability to track wild birds that may carry avian flu.

The same weather radar technology used to predict rain is now giving University of California researchers the ability to track wild birds that could carry the avian influenza virus.

Avian influenza, which kills chickens, turkeys and other birds, can take a significant economic toll on the poultry industry. In 2014-15, the U.S. experienced its worst outbreak of avian flu in history, resulting in more than 48 million birds dying in 15 states.

This Landsat map shows wetland coverage in the Sacramento Valley in 2007, a rainy year, and 2015, a dry year. Waterfowl habitat locations may vary depending on precipitation. Credit: University of California Regents.

“We use the existing network of weather radar stations in the U.S. in the same way that radar is used to track rain, except that we process the data to allow us to interpret the radar signal bouncing off birds instead of raindrops,” said Maurice Pitesky, University of California Cooperative Extension poultry specialist. “The data can be interpreted to track birds.”

Next-generation radar (NEXRAD) is a network of 160 high-resolution S-band Doppler weather radars operated by the National Weather Service. The technology works best for tracking birds in the winter during feeding. When waterfowl leave their roosting locations in concert to feed, their bodies produce reflectivity of the radar beam.

“By tracking mass bird movements remotely in real time, we hope to gain novel strategic insights with respect to surveillance and prevention of avian influenza transmission to domestic poultry,” said Todd Kelman, a veterinarian and engineer who co-leads the project with Pitesky, who is also in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis). They are exploring how the information might be used to prevent an outbreak.

This NEXRAD map shows where migrating waterfowl are gathered in rice fields, herbaceous wetlands and other agricultural land. Credit: University of California Regents.

In California, waterfowl migrate by the millions from September through March via the Pacific Flyway, where they winter in wetlands, rice and corn fields. California's Central Valley is home to 3 million waterfowl at the height of migration.

“Using NEXRAD and various other approaches, we hope to be able to produce monthly or quarterly maps that will alert poultry producers as to the locations of waterfowl in the Central Valley of California,” Pitesky said.

“Waterfowl populations can have different habitat based on the amount of precipitation in a given year,” Pitesky added. “Therefore, we need to use these types of monitoring tools to understand where waterfowl are located. Landsat, or satellite-based land imagery, and NEXRAD are two remote tools that may be very useful as opposed to flyovers and banding, which are more expensive and not practical for large geographical areas.”

The project — funded by University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources — is a collaboration between the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and Jeff Buler, a University of Delaware wildlife ecologist whose team first developed the NEXRAD approach in the Central Valley of California. They are also working with the U.S. Geological Survey, California Department of Food & Agriculture, California Poultry Federation, Pacific Egg & Poultry Assn. and Point Blue, an organization that focuses on conservation science.

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