I was a 16-year-old 4-H’er when I first heard of the avian flu. I was at a poultry show having my birds tested and someone asked if they were testing for it. While they weren’t, I learned a lot speaking to the National Poultry Improvement Plan inspector that day and became fascinated with poultry illnesses and how to prevent and treat them.
Now that I have my own small homestead flock, I worry about the avian flu killing them off.
History of Avian Flu
Avian Influenza A (H5N1) has run rampant for years. In 1878, this highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was first noticed in northern Italy by veterinarian Edoardo Perroncito. First called fowl plague, the disease killed many birds but was thought to be the result of another disease—fowl cholera—caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida.
Throughout the early 1900s, avian flu continued to have outbreaks. In 1996 in China, an outbreak caused mortality of 40 percent of aquatic birds. This disease really made headway in recent times with its rapid mutations. In 2014-2015, North America lost 50 million birds to avian flu.
This disease has become a major killer of domesticated avian species, including chickens, and wild bird populations. There are many bird species that are endangered, and protecting them is a critical component of keeping our ecosystems safe. While governments are concerned with domesticated and wild birds, hobby farmers are mainly worried about our backyard flocks and what this disease could mean for us.
Avian flu can kill entire flocks, and many need to be culled due to contamination. Many larger farms have needed to cull their entire flock for the good of the entire agriculture industry. Backyard flocks have needed to be culled as well.
So the main question here is: How do I prevent this tragedy from happening to me?
Danger to Humans?
Avian influenza viruses rarely infect people, according to the USDA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, it does pose a slight risk to a specific population of people in direct contact with birds. Farmers are in that population. Some symptoms of avian flu in humans include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, respiratory issues, and nausea and vomiting.
“Most previous bird flu virus infections in people have occurred following close, prolonged and unprotected (e.g., no gloves or medical mask) contact with infected birds or environments contaminated by their saliva, mucous or poop,” it states.
This means that if we handle our birds in a hygienic manner, we can significantly lower our risk. When handling poultry, always practice good hygiene by washing your hands after any contact. This is important for more reasons than just avian flu.
Having a sick chicken or other poultry can be worrisome. Many vets won’t see poultry, and it can be nerve-wracking figuring out what is wrong with your birds.
In “Avian Influenza Basics for Urban and Backyard Poultry Owners,” University of Minnesota poultry specialists state that HPAI signs often include respiratory (gasping) and digestive (extreme diarrhea) signs followed by rapid death.
“Chickens may have swelling around the head, neck and eyes,” they write. “The heads and legs may also have purple discoloration.”
This is important to note because knowing the signs is important to ensure your chickens are safe. The paper’s authors state that if your flock has sudden, high death rates or many birds with signs of HPAI, contact your veterinarian or your local board of health.
The University of Minnesota also makes note that flocks within 6 miles of confirmed cases will need to be checked for the virus and potentially euthanized. This is important to help limit the spread as most cases have been found within backyard flocks.
Sick poultry will look ruffled, be quieter than usual, eat or drink less and overall look sick. You should always separate a sick bird from the rest of your flock. Even if it is not avian flu, it could help prevent the spread of other illnesses to the rest of your flock.
Read more: Biosecurity helps keep hens healthy.
While there is no surefire way to prevent avian flu, ways to help mitigate the spread and keep your flock healthy do exist. First and foremost is biosecurity, a procedure that helps protect your animals or yourself from harmful biological diseases. While biosecurity doesn’t 100 percent prevent disease, it can be a great way to drastically reduce the risk of the overall spread of these diseases.
When I was in 4-H, I ran a rabbitry and poultry farm where many of my pet customers were upset they couldn’t tour our farm. This was due to our biosecurity. When you allow people onto your farm, you increase the risk of diseases coming onto your property.
When I think of my biosecurity measures, I think about the start to finish. When I buy new birds, I always quarantine them. Another way is by ensuring that whatever I buy looks healthy when I purchase. If I buy directly from a farm, I look around to see if their farm is clean and healthy.
Questions I typically ask myself are:
- Do these animals look healthy?
- Are enclosures clean?
- Are there too many animals for the space given?
Animals should look healthy around. Unhealthy animals mean that there is a chance the bird I am buying could get sick soon.
If the environment isn’t clean, there is a high-risk of illness. Pens that are filled with dust increase the risk for respiratory issues in birds. Birds that are at an increased risk for illness typically come from high-stress environments such as these.
Birds and other animals that are crammed into areas that aren’t big enough typically spread illnesses quickly. I think of the plague era. People that were closer to others got sick much quicker than those away from crowds. Crowded environments are a red flag when buying as well.
I typically enjoy farms that don’t allow tours. This shows they are conscious of disease, and the less people coming in and out of their farm the better.
For my own farm, I don’t allow just anyone to come over. Not only is it important to the health of my animals, but my family as well. Limiting the amount of people that expose your animals and propery to pathogens is important to the biosecurity of your farm.
When people do come over, I ask them to wash their hands and disinfect their shoes. I am always wary of other poultry owners coming over, but anyone could carry diseases on their shoes.
Birds of a Feather
Another main concern you should have is feeding wild birds. Many of us enjoy birdwatching on the farm and don’t think much of it when we see wild birds inside our coops or around feeders. I once had a feeder in my backyard that our chickens would often scratch under. However, this can be deadly!
Wild birds can carry avian flu. By encouraging them to fly around your yard, you increase the risk of spread to your flock. They also carry other diseases and parasites that could harm your flocks as well.
Your free-ranging flock may need to be kept inside to prevent contact with wildlife. It’s near impossible to stop wild birds from entering your yard.
Mites and other diseases can spread quickly to your birds. Ways to prevent wild birds include:
- not allowing feed to sit out
- preventing waterfowl from landing in your pond
- making your yard less appealing to these birds.
You may even need to drain standing water.
You should disinfect all your poultry housing and equipment at least monthly. This includes scrubbing feeders and waterers. When cleaning your poultry equipment, practice personal hygiene and wear gloves and masks. Afterwards, change your clothing and shower.
Any new poultry you bring on your farm should be quarantined away from your existing birds for at least a month. This gives time for any diseases they may have to show themselves.
Another good way to keep your flock safe is to have special shoes strictly for your coop. Not only does this protect your flock from outside diseases, but you won’t potentially track diseases outside of your coop as well.
You might be asking yourself, Does this mean I shouldn’t attend poultry shows, swaps or other chicken-related events? Can I still hunt wild game birds? These are tricky questions.
While hunting is relatively safe if you don’t let your poultry encounter any gear that may have been in contact with wild birds, shows and swaps are a different story. A good way to gauge the current guidelines is through the CDC, which has maps of the current outbreaks of the disease.
For instance, I live in the Panhandle of Florida, and avian flu has only currently affected two counties, which are nowhere near me. I feel safe to show and attend local swaps. However, states such as Montana have a few more counties under alert, so I would look at what is near me and if there are any cases around me. It is truly a personal preference whether or not you choose to continue on.
However, even if the avian flu isn’t near you, still be wary of other diseases that you may pick up at these events.
Learning to be cautious isn’t a bad thing and could potentially save the lives of your flock and many others by preventing the spread of diseases. Keeping a healthy flock is critical to ensuring that they stay healthy and continue to provide your farm with products such as eggs for years to come. Remember to keep your coops clean and to disinfect everything to help keep your flocks safe from diseases!
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.