From Associated Press/Canadian Press article:

HONG KONG (AP) – Something was strange about the little brown bird found dead from bird flu in one of Hong Kong’s busiest shopping districts. The scaly breasted munia usually lives in rural areas of the territory. So how did it and five others come to be in a bustling urban district – raising the threat of exposing residents and tourists to the virus? Experts think the birds may have been used in a Buddhist ritual that frees hundreds of birds to improve karma. So, with worries rising in Asia about a new outbreak of bird flu, officials are urging the religious practice be stopped to protect public health. ,,, The scaly breasted munia is native to Hong Kong but is usually found in tussocks in rural areas, said Lew Young, a manager at the Chinese territory’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 who studied the releases for her thesis last year at Hong Kong University, said the frequency of releasing birds in Hong Kong is far more than had been suspected. She contacted 229 religious groups in the city and 48 admitted they released birds to seek blessings. The groups practise the ritual one to 18 times each year, releasing as many as 3,000 birds each time, she said. "Based on the figures they gave me, I estimate they released a range of 400,000 to 600,000 birds in 2006," Chan said. "There are also people who buy and release birds individually and there’s no way for me to quantify them, so there should be more other than these 48 groups," she said. …

Hong Kong Buddhists release birds in ritual, despite bird flu worries