Like anyone who’s neither an idiot nor willfully ignorant, I’ve followed the avian flu issue with enough depth and interest to know that it’s scary as hell. Yesterday I happened to pick up a copy of the International Herald Tribune (it was in the lobby of the Zurich hotel we stayed in after a week of skiing in the Alps; yes, I know, life is tough) and read a scary piece about how avian flu has turned up on a poultry farm in France, forcing French health authorities to quarantine a farm family. The family’s young daughter was away from home when the outbreak was discovered and she’s not allowed to return home, and because the local postman is afraid, he leaves the family’s medicine on the road near their farmhouse.

And then I read a scary piece about how avian flu is likely to make its way around the globe, written by Laurie Garrett, who apparently has written a scary book about the topic.

Her analysis is fascinating, but so is her solution — mainly because it relies heavily on the longtime footsoldiers of grassroots environmental activism. Writes Garrett: “One of the best untapped resources in this epic battle against influenza is bird-watchers, who are among the most fanatic hobbyists in the world.”

Avian flu is spread by migratory wild birds, traveling well-known flyways; the wild birds infect domestic poultry. For now, people catch it only if they come into contact with infected birds. But anyone who knows anything about the subject says it’s just a matter of time until the avian flu mutates so it can be passed from person to person. And when that happens, the old joke — “I opened the door and in flew Enza” — will be grim indeed.

When wild birds are infected with avian influenza, they die, just as poultry does. And that’s where birders can be useful, Garrett says:

The major bird-watching organizations and safari clubs ought to work with the World Health Organization and OIE, the World Organization for Animal Health, to set up Web-based notification sites, where birders could report sightings of groups of dead birds, and the movements of key migrating species.

Ornithologists and climate experts should immediately sit down with pandemic planners and virologists, creating lists of known H5N1 carriers and plotting their most likely global movements. As the birds appear in new regions of the world, birders and professional wildlife surveillance personnel should issue alerts, which should be swiftly confirmed and form the basis of government response.

When carrier species are sighted in a region, swift action should be taken to minimize contact between the wild birds and their domestic kin. In such a way, it might be possible to limit avian deaths to susceptible wild birds …

The way to minimize contact between wild and domestic birds is to move domestic bird indoors or, if that’s not possible, to keep them in pens, behind fences, and under netting.

Garrett is quick to say that birdwatchers alone won’t keep the world safe from avian flu. But she does think they can help minimize a frightening pandemic. More than a century ago birders organized themselves and fought hard to save egrets and herons from being destroyed. The various Audubon societies and clubs are their legacy. Now they might have a chance to save more than just birds.