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Is climate change coming for Thanksgiving turkeys?

A grill-roasted brined turkey is presented on a table in Concord, N.H.Larry Crowe/Associated Press

Turkey, the centerpiece of Thanksgiving spreads, is in short supply this year for a variety of reasons. A dearth of truck drivers is hamstringing distribution. Higher corn prices have inflated feed prices. And then, there’s the rampant spread of avian influenza.

Across the nation this year, an almost record-breaking 49 million wild and domestic birds either died as a result of the virus or were killed to limit spread, including more than 8 million turkeys, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

There’s evidence that climate change could increase avian flu’s transmission in the future. So as the planet continues to warm, outbreaks of this severity might become more common.


Here’s why: Faced with changing climatic conditions, birds are altering their migration patterns. Some are shifting their ranges to find more hospitable climate conditions, while others are staying in their northern ranges for longer, since winter temperatures are arriving later in many parts of the world.

As a result, bird species that wouldn’t have historically crossed paths are now intermixing, which could increase the likelihood of transmission of diseases like avian flu.

Peter Rabinowitz, director of the Center for One Health Research at the University of Washington, who has studied the relationship between bird flu and climate change, said it’s not certain that this will happen.

“At this point this is only conjecture,” he said.

Still, the possibility of increased spread is concerning, especially when it comes to turkey and other poultry. While wild waterfowl, like ducks and geese, are usually the primary transmitters of avian flu, they often show no symptoms. But those species can pass the illness on to domestic birds, which are poorly adapted to it.

“When domesticated poultry, such as chickens and turkeys, come in direct or indirect contact with feces of infected wild birds, they become infected and start to show symptoms, such as depression, coughing and sneezing and sudden death,” Yuko Sato, associate professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University, wrote in The Conversation earlier this year.


Experts say there are steps we can take to decrease the disease’s spread, including vaccinating poultry and reporting sightings of dead wild birds to officials who can safely dispose of carcasses. Still, severe outbreaks — and turkey shortages — may become the norm.

In future years, consider beginning your search for a Thanksgiving turkey earlier in November, and be ready to pony up extra funds once you find one, since shortages can cause prices to rise. Or maybe consider a vegetarian option with a lower carbon impact.

Rabinowitz said more research should be done on the potential effects of the changing climate on avian flu.

“We need better scientific evidence to understand this outbreak and prevent future ones,” he said.

In the meantime, if you’ve got a turkey on your this Thanksgiving, don’t take it for granted. I know I won’t.

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.