Something was strange about a little brown bird found dead with bird flu this month in one of Hong Kong's busiest shopping districts.
The bird -- a scaly breasted munia -- usually lives in rural areas. So what was it and five others doing flitting around in such a bustling, crowded area -- possibly exposing some of the thousands of locals and tourists to the deadly virus?
Experts think the bird may have been a prop in a Buddhist ritual that involves freeing hundreds of birds to improve one's karma. As the threat of bird flu re-emerges in Asia, the government finds itself in the awkward position of urging that the religious practice be stopped to protect the public's health.
When health officials discovered that the scaly breast munia -- found on New Year's Eve -- tested positive for the H5 virus, they held a news conference. A few days later, they said further tests showed the bird had the H5N1 strain.
The scaly breasted munia is native to Hong Kong, but it is usually found in tussocks in rural areas, said Lew Young, a manager at Hong Kong's Mai Po bird sanctuary.
"Six scaly breasted munia being found dead at the same spot at one time easily leads one to suspect whether they were being released," he said.
The birds are commonly used in the Buddhist ceremonies, Young added.
"They are usually transported to Hong Kong from the mainland in boxes. If one of the birds is sick, the rest are likely to be sick as well since they are crammed in one box," he said.
Aidia Chan, a postgraduate student in ecology, said Buddhist groups practiced the ritual one to 18 times each year, releasing as many as 3,000 birds each time.