Influenza A viruses are usually non-pathogenic in wild aquatic birds, their natural reservoir. However, from May to July 2005, at Qinghai Lake in China, an unprecedented outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus caused the death of thousands of wild migratory waterbirds. Herein, H5N1 influenza virus from bar-headed geese collected during the outbreak was characterized. Genomic analysis showed that A/Bar-headed Goose/Qinghai/0510/05 (Bh H5N1 virus) is a reassortant virus. Amino acid residue (lysine) at position 627 in the PB2 gene of the Bh H5N1 virus was the same as that of the human H5N1 virus (A/HK/483/97) and different from that of H5N1 avian influenza viruses deposited in GenBank. Antigenic analysis showed that significant antigenic variation has occurred in the Bh H5N1 virus. The Bh H5N1 virus induced systemic infections and caused 100 % mortality in chickens and mice, and 80 % mortality in ducks and geese. Bh H5N1 virus titres were higher in multiple organs of chickens, ducks and geese than in mice, and caused more severe histological lesions in chickens, ducks and mice than in geese. These results support the need to pay close attention and create control programmes to prevent the transmission of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus from wild migratory waterbirds into domestic chickens, ducks, geese and mammalian hosts.