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As Bird Flu Spreads to Dairy Cows, Minnesota's Raptors Show Signs of Building Remarkable Immunity

By Greg Stanley

A little barred owl looked up from the crux of Dana Franzen-Klein's elbow, stared the veterinarian in the eye and, in as tough and menacing of a posture as he could muster, clicked his beak. The injured bird was a baby, maybe a month old. His click was a warning, that despite being a puffball barely bigger than Franzen-Klein's palm, he would bite the medical director of the Minnesota Raptor Center if he had to.

Then before Franzen-Klein could do anything else, before she could take an X-ray to see if the  could be mended or if the owl had to be put down, she stuck a needle into his elbow at the base of his wing and took a  to find out if he had built up or inherited any antibodies over the course of his short life to the dreaded avian flu.

The worst strain of bird flu to ever hit North America continues to spread. It's spilled over and infected far more types mammals than previously thought possible since first arriving to the continent in late 2021. This spring, for the first time, it infected dairy cows in nine states, including North Dakota and Michigan. The virus has been found in milk from those infected cows.

But, in a promising sign, blood samples from the Minnesota Raptor Center and other rehabilitation facilities across the United States show that high numbers of animals are building up immunity to the  in the woods, swamps and other wild places that harbor it.

For the last year and a half, Franzen-Klein and other veterinarians at the Raptor Center have been taking blood samples from each of the 1,000-plus injured and  that come through their doors to test for the antibodies, for signs that the birds had, at some point, beaten the H5N1 strain of high pathogenic avian influenza. The results have been overwhelmingly positive.

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