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Wild birds, particularly waterfowl, are a key element of the viral ecology of avian influenza. Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus, subtype H5N1, was first detected in poultry in November 1996 in southeast China, where it originated. The virus subsequently dispersed throughout most of Asia, and also to Africa and Europe. Despite compelling evidence that the virus has been dispersed widely via human activities that include farming, and marketing of poultry, migratory birds have been widely considered to be the primary source of its global dispersal. Here we present a critical examination of the arguments both for and against the role of migratory birds in the global dispersal of HPAI H5N1. We conclude that, whilst wild birds undoubtedly contribute to the local spread of the virus in the wild, human commercial activities, particularly those associated with poultry, are the major factors that have determined its global dispersal.