BARROW, Alaska (AP) -Nearly 350 miles above the Arctic Circle, a traditional Eskimo feast to celebrate a successful whale hunt is in the making. On the table, chopped-up chunks of wild fowl are ready for the pot – all except for a lovely king eider duck.

Before this duck is plucked and cooked, a government scientist will swab it to take a sample for bird flu testing.

Scientists have been posted in Barrow – the nation’s northernmost city, set in a treeless expanse of tundra on the edge of the ice-bound Arctic Ocean – to look for early warning signs that migratory birds are bringing the deadly virus to North America.

No one knows when or if H5N1 avian influenza will arrive in the U.S., but if it does come by bird, experts want to know early on, before it can devastate the poultry supply.

The virus has led to the death or slaughter of millions of birds in Asia, Europe and Africa and killed more than 128 people who had close contract with sick birds. The bigger fear is that the virus could mutate into a form that could pass easily from human to human, sparking a pandemic.

But as Corey Rossi, district supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services in Alaska, prepares to take a fecal sample from the duck with a swab, he relays the same message he has been giving since he arrived in Barrow.

“I don’t think we’re going to find anything but we’re looking just to make sure,” he said. He tucks the cotton swab in a sterile vial while Laura Paktotak and her cousin pluck, chop and deliver the duck to the pot.

The testing is part of an effort to sample between 75,000 and 100,000 live and hunter-killed birds across the nation, of which 19,000 are to come from various points around Alaska.

Barrow, population 4,800, is a place where a sharp wind whips the grit from the dirt roads, and snow flurries fly even in June. Because it is a crossroads for birds migrating back and forth from Asia and traveling to and from the Lower 48 states, Barrow is on the front lines of the early-detection plan – a fact that caused some consternation at first among people who live here and depend on wild fowl for food.

A public information campaign worked to ease those fears by telling hunters to cook game birds thoroughly and to use rubber gloves and exercise care when handling and cleaning their catch.

Frances Leavitt, a 41-year-old Barrow housewife, says she would never give up the foods she grew up eating. Hunting is a vital source of food in a community where a nice steak at the grocery store can go for $35 and milk is $7.50 a gallon.

Leavitt says that after the initial concerns about bird flu wore off, the subject became a joke among the hunters in her family. “They would say to each other, ‘Are you going to go bird flu hunting now?”‘ she says.

Sampling hunter-killed birds is only a small part of the Alaska effort being waged by federal, state and local governments. Live birds also are being sampled, though that effort did not start out as smoothly as biologists hoped.

Rossi and crew spent two days trying to capture glaucous gulls at the local landfill. The idea was to fire a 50-by-60-foot net over them. The whale blubber bait failed to lure the skittish birds, which waited until later in the night to venture close.

And in a coastal marsh, biologists tried and failed to capture several species of small, quick shorebirds by stringing long nets. The birds flew up and over the mesh after a wind kicked up and set it rippling.

While the scientists persist, the Inupiat Eskimos continue to rely on nature’s bounty.

More than 300 Barrow residents show up at the outdoor community festival, called an apugauti, for a bowl of duck soup and some mikigaq, a tangy black viscous mixture of fermented whale blood, blubber and meat that the children gobble up like candy. The elderly in fur-trimmed parkas and youngsters in hooded sweatshirts sit at long tables at a windy community playground.

“We are keeping our tradition and culture alive,” says Susan Hope. “It brings out the best in everybody.”

AP-ES-06-09-06 1349EDT

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