Warning of Bird Flu Risks to Backyard Poultry Flocks

US - At an international conference on avian influenza at the University of Georgia last week, the important role of hobby and smallholder flock owners in the control of the disease were not overlooked.
calendar icon 24 April 2015
clock icon 5 minute read

When the cackling got going during the debate about backyard chickens in Athens-Clarke County, noise and disagreeable odors took to roost at the top of resident’s concerns.

What people were not talking about, reports Online Athens, was the potentially catastrophic outbreak of bird flu in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

In February, a strain of avian flu called struck turkey farms in Minnesota and began popping up in poultry flocks in the region.

A highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, H5N2 spreads quickly through an infected flock, killing most of the birds.

Last week, more than 300 scientists from throughout the world gathered in Athens to discuss the outbreak at the Avian Influenza Symposium.

Will the virus make its way to Georgia?

Yes, said Dr Nancy Cox, former chief of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think it’s inevitable, I really do. I think all the states that have a lot of poultry production in particular are vulnerable, just because they have a lot of domestic birds, dense populations of birds, and even in farms with high biosecurity in the Midwest, they’ve seen introduction of these viruses.”

Migratory birds like ducks and geese enable the spread of the disease. While they do not always appear sick, infected birds can leave the virus in their wake through droppings.

She added; “If you have backyard chickens, they’re going to be able to come in contact with wild birds that come in to enjoy the food that’s put out for the backyard chickens. And you can count on there being mingling. It’s a given.”

David Stallknecht, wildlife expert and professor at the University of Georgia School of Veterinary Medicine, said whether or not the disease sticks around is up for debate. The virus can quickly produce devastating consequences but a key factor will be the duration of the outbreak in the hardest hit states.

He said: “(There are) a lot of things for it to compete with while it’s here. It’s questionable whether it’s actually going to persist. There has never been, not one, Eurasian virus that has ever come into North America and persisted – that has been detected.”

Since December 2014, poultry farmers have reported 50 outbreaks of the virus from California to Wisconsin, killing more than 2.5 million turkeys and chickens.

Affected flocks ranged in size from as little as 10 backyard birds to more than 300,000. And although there has not been one case of human infection in the US, a low risk of people contracting the virus does exist.

Dr Cox said: “So we don’t know all of the different risk factors for human infection. We know that there is a high species barrier for the avian influenza viruses to jump from birds to infect humans.”

The disease would have to go through quite a few mutations to make someone sick.

Backyard flocks and avian flu

Closer to home, where the backyard chicken ordinance is set to go into effect, concern appears low, reports Online Athens.

Neighboring Madison County resident Duke Wayland recently started his backyard flock with 13 chicks that are roughly one month old.

When asked if he had considered the possible risk for HPAI, he responded, “It never even crossed my mind. I’ll be looking into that and seeing what we need to watch out for.”

Both the CDC and the United States Department of Agriculture have tips for poultry growers on their websites, as well as information about how to identify signs of avian flu in wild or domestic birds.

It remains to be seen whether the virus should concern backyard chicken enthusiasts in the Athens area.

Professor Stallknecht added: “Think about it in the context of you live in a small house in suburbia, and you have three chickens running around your backyard. The real question is what is the probability of them coming into contact with an infected duck? Probably pretty low.”

Tips for Protecting Poultry Flocks

  • Isolate your birds from visitors and other birds
  • Prevent germs from spreading by cleaning shoes, tools and equipment
  • Also clean vehicles and cages
  • Avoid sharing tools and equipment with neighbours
  • Watch for early signs to prevent the spread of the disease
  • Report unusual signs of disease or unexpected deaths to your local cooperative extension office, veterinarian of the USDA by calling 1-800-536-7593.

Warning Signs of Infectious Bird Diseases

  • Sudden increase in bird deaths in your flock
  • Sneezing, gasping for air, coughing and nasal discharge
  • Watery and green diarrhoea
  • Lack of energy and poor appetite
  • Drop in egg production or soft- or thin-shelled misshapen eggs
  • Swelling around the eyes, neck and head
  • Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs
  • Tremors, drooping wings, circling, twisting of the head and neck, or lack of movement.

Further Reading

You can visit the Avian Flu page by clicking here.

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