There is no doubt about it – people love their chickens. Since 2020, backyard chicken coop numbers continue to rise in North Carolina and across the country. If you are one of these individuals that have just recently discovered the joys of backyard bird ownership, then recent reports of rising avian influenza cases probably has you concerned. This blog is meant to explain why avian influenza is here and ways you can protect your backyard flock.
“Avian influenza is naturally occurring in migrating wild birds,” said State Veterinarian, Dr. Mike Martin. “A lot of times these birds will not show any signs of carrying the virus. Occasionally an avian influenza strain will develop into one that is consider ‘high-path,’ which means it is extra deadly.” Susceptible bird species can vary with the strain of avian influenza, but generally include chickens and other backyard poultry species.
Signs of avian influenza include lack of energy and appetite, reluctance to move, decreased egg production, soft or misshapen eggs, discolored comb and wattles, lack of coordination, diarrhea, and death. In cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), however, susceptible birds often die without showing any of these aforementioned signs of illness. In a HPAI-infected flock many birds can die within a short time.
“Your backyard birds can potentially come into contact with this virus from other domestic poultry (such as your neighbors’ birds), wild birds (such as visiting songbirds or waterfowl), or the feces of migrating birds if their flight path is over your backyard.”
Commercial poultry farms have biosecurity plans that help them work towards keeping avian influenza out of their poultry houses. Backyard owners can also implement simple steps to help ensure their flocks stay safe. Below are a few steps to consider taking:
- Place a roof or other protective cover over your flock’s pen, if possible, to prevent introduction of wild waterfowl droppings into the area your flock inhabits. The droppings of infected waterfowl have very high levels of infectious HPAI virus.
- Feed and water your birds in a protected area to prevent attracting wild birds and rodents. Consider using a fine mesh screen around your enclosure to exclude wild birds that may be attracted to your flock’s food and water sources. While infected wild birds can spread this disease, uninfected birds and rodents can also track the disease into proximity with your birds on their feet and feathers should they have come in contact with infected feces, etc.
- Wear shoe covers or clean boots each time you enter your birds’ pen. This will help prevent tracking HPAI virus into the birds’ pen if it is present on your property from the droppings of infected wild birds.
- Do not share equipment with your neighbors. If you visit your neighbor’s poultry, change your clothes and shoes before visiting your own flock. Remember that HPAI can be spread mechanically by uninfected people, animals and things.
- If you purchase new birds, buy only from a reputable National Poultry Improvement Plan dealer. Keep the newly purchased birds separate from your existing flock for at least 3 weeks to rule out any underlying infections that may take time to show themselves.
If your flock suddenly becomes depressed and begins dying, please contact NCDA&CS, your cooperative extension office, your local veterinarian, or USDA APHIS and report these deaths immediately. You can reach NCDA&CS Veterinary Division at 919-707-3365, or USDA APHIS at 1-866-536-7593. For reports of dead wild birds please contact the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission Helpline at 1-866-318-2401 or HWI@ncwildlife.org. More information about Avian Flu is available online at https://www.ncagr.gov/avianflu/index.htm.