Are backyard chickens in North Carolina safe from avian flu?

The current strain of avian flu detected in North Carolina poultry isn't just a commercial problem: backyard chicken flocks are also at risk.  Experts advise keeping your birds confined and away from places accessed by wild birds.

The current strain of avian flu detected in North Carolina poultry isn’t just a commercial problem: backyard chicken flocks are also at risk. Experts advise keeping your birds confined and away from places accessed by wild birds.

tlong@newsobserver.com

The current strain of avian flu detected in North Carolina poultry farms could wreak havoc on the state’s poultry population if it continues to spread. But it isn’t just a commercial problem: backyard chicken flocks are also at risk.

Here are some quick facts about the latest strain of avian flu and some tips for keeping your home chickens safe.

What is avian / bird flu?

The current strain of avian influenza is highly pathogenic, so it is also referred to as HPAI.

It affects poultry flocks, including chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks and geese.

In its highly pathogenic form, it is a rapidly fatal virus. It spreads very quickly and can wipe out an entire flock when infected.

Where has avian flu been detected?

Right now, HPAI has been detected in commercial farms and backyard flocks on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

The USDA has so far determined that every case in the United States has come directly from wild birds, Matthew Koci, a virologist and immunologist in NC State’s poultry science department told The News & Observer in a previous article.

How is avian flu spread?

While it comes directly from wild birds (and can be spread that way), it can also be spread from flock to flock on boots, clothing and equipment, says the NC Department of Agriculture.

How can I tell if my chickens are sick with avian/bird flu?

Signs of HPAI in chickens will often include:

  • respiratory distress, such as gasping and runny nose
  • digestive distress, such as diarrhea
  • stumbling, falling down
  • lack of energy and decreased appetite
  • lower egg production or soft-shelled/misshapen eggs
  • purple discoloration on their wattles, combs and legs
  • swelling around the head, eyes, comb and wattles

The signs could be a little different for turkeys, according to the University of Minnesota. And while turkeys aren’t typically kept in backyards, it’s still good to know that the symptoms could exhibit differently. Look for:

Note that wild waterfowl do not always show signs of illness and may not die from HPAI, but they can carry and spread the virus to other birds, says UM.

How do I keep my backyard chickens safe from avian flu?

Dr. Matt Koci, a virologist in NC State’s poultry science department, says it’s very important to keep your chickens away from other birds.

“If you have backyard birds, especially chickens, turkeys, or guinea fowl you need to keep them away from wild birds as much as possible, and migratory birds especially,” Koci said in an email to The News & Observer.

“But it’s harder than that because your birds don’t have to come in direct contact with the infected wild bird to get infected. Migratory birds can carry the virus asymptomatically. If they are carrying the virus and they (or their poop) land in your yard and then your bird comes in contact with that poop, or contaminated pond, they’ll get infected.”

If you live near a pond, lake, park, or other place that migratory birds might congregate, your birds are probably at the greatest risk, Koci said.

Jonas Asbill with the NC Cooperative Extension office writes that those keeping backyard birds should also consider: “relocating locks away from all natural bodies of water, covering the top of any open or screened runs with metal and/or plastic to prevent wild bird droppings from falling into the bird area, and removing wild bird feeders or distancing them from any backyard flocks as much as possible.”

Asbill says since birds may be more confined than usual, it’s a good idea to add other forms of enrichment to keep the birds occupied and to discourage them from pecking one another.

Some enrichment items to consider adding are: tree branches, cabbage, melons, pecking blocks, hanging aluminum pie pans.

Koci offered some additional tips to keep your chickens safe:

Have separate shoes (maybe even overalls) that you wear around your birds. “Don’t wear the shoes you wear around town, or for walks around Umstead, around your chickens so you don’t track it in from other places,” he said.

Don’t bring new birds into your flock right now. “Or if you do, set up a separate pen to keep the new birds isolated from your flock for a period of 14-21 days until you know that new birds didn’t bring diseases with them,” Koci said.

Don’t use any of the same equipment between the new birds and your current flock until you know they are safe.

What happens to flukes where the flu is detected?

After a thorough process to confirm HPAI, infected and exposed birds must be destroyed.

How do I report suspected avian flu?

You must report suspected cases of avian flu — and do it quickly. The NC Department of Agriculture lists the following options:

Call your local veterinarian

Call the NC State Veterinary Office: 919-707-3250

Call your local NC Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory System:

  • Raleigh: 919-733-3986
  • Elkin: 336-526-2499
  • Monroe: 704-289-6448
  • Arden/Fletcher: 828-684-8188

Call the USDA: 866-536-7593

Also, consult the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website for up-to-date information on HPAI detection in the US

This story was originally published April 7, 2022 3:19 PM.

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Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 25 years. She is the service journalism editor and writes about TV and local media for The N&O’s Happiness is a Warm TV blog.

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