The Risk of Avian Flu to Backyard Chicken Flocks

-photo courtesy of USDA APHIS-
Whether you keep chickens or not, you've probably been hearing the news about the Avian Flu (avian influenza) which has been found primarily in chicken flocks in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest (as of the end of 2015).

However, unless you live in that proximity, maybe you haven't been all that concerned about it. But the bad news is, it's spread by wild birds and it IS spreading. 

So should you be concerned about your backyard chickens? 

In one word: yes. 

You should be very concerned. 

All the technical, medical and scientific facts can be found HERE on the new website the Center for Disease Control has set up for those interested in the nitty-gritty. For the rest of us, all we really need to know is that wild birds (mainly migratory waterfowl at this point) carry it - and can infect your chickens. 

There is no treatment or cure, it spreads very quickly, and it's fatal about 90% of the time.

-free range chickens are more at risk than those kept in an enclosed/covered pen-

(Interestingly, it occurs naturally in wild waterfowl and ducks can be carriers, but are generally not affected by it. And at this point, it isn't being spread to humans but as with any pathogen or bacteria, over time it can - and will - mutate.)

Update as of  1/15/16: First case of avian flu in 2016 found in Dubois Indiana

Signs of Infection/Symptoms

While the virus is highly contagious and fatal in most cases within 48 hours, often symptoms are minor - such as ruffled feathers or a drop in egg production  - so diagnosing a carrier can be difficult and seemingly healthy chickens could be sold or swapped, unknowingly spreading the virus further.

Be vigilant and keep a close eye on your chickens for any behavior out of the ordinary. If you notice a sick chicken or a if chicken dies suddenly, immediately contact your state avian lab for testing/necropsy. Be aware that confirmed infected flocks are culled immediately on site. Yup, that's how serious this is.

More visible symptoms can include:

- decreased activity
- decreased feed consumption
- coughing or sneezing
- wet eyes
- fluid in the comb and wattles
- greenish diarrhea
- bleeding under the skin of the legs
- paralysis
- sudden death

-disinfecting footwear can help prevent tracking the virus into your chicken run-

Wild birds carry the virus in their saliva, mucus and feces. Your chickens don't even need to actually come in direct contact with the wild birds, they just need to walk on the same ground.

The AI virus can live in manure for more than 3 months and indefinitely in temperatures below freezing. Keeping your chickens away from areas frequented by wild birds is the best prevention, which basically would mean 'cooping up' your chickens inside their coop, but realizing most aren't going to want to go to that extreme, at least take some steps to reduce their risk.

This might mean:

- removing bird feeders from your yard, as well as water baths - or at the very least moving them away from your coop and run area
- halting free range time and keeping your chickens in an enclosed (covered) run
- keeping wild birds out of your chicken run by putting down chicken feed only in the morning and again just before dark
- be very wary of purchasing any new birds a swaps or fairs (and I would think twice about even attending swaps or fairs until this outbreak is contained)
- don't show your birds or attend poultry shows
- don't visit friends' or neighbors' flocks and don't allow others to visit your flock
- designating footwear that you only wear in the run and utilizing a disinfectant bath before you enter the run
- if someone must enter your run, insist they wear a pair of your 'chicken' boots or disposable booties over their own shoes
- don't lend out or borrow farm equipment or tools, or if you do, be sure to remove all manure and dirt and disinfect them before using them around your flock


There is no treatment or cure. Confirmed cases mean entire flocks being culled and buried on the premises to prevent further spreading of the virus. And that would, of course, be a devastatingly heartbreaking thing to endure.

Keeping your chickens' immune systems strong can be a key to reducing losses if they are infected, and any survivors are generally immune to the virus going forward - but can also continue to spread it. Read more about how I keep my chickens strong and healthy HERE.

With spring comes the migration season, which will help to spread the AI virus even further. This graphic from the US Fish and Wildlife Service displays the migration patterns and clearly illustrates that all areas of North America are at potential risk for outbreaks. 

flyways in full animation
-photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
The Avian Flu should concern us all. If the virus is not contained and the outbreak continues to spread, worst case it could mean the end of backyard chicken keeping. At the very least, I would guess the risks it poses might mean that towns and municipalities on the fence about allowing backyard chicken flocks could ultimately decide against allowing them.

We each need to do our part to prevent the spread of the virus and the infection of our own and other's flocks. Practicing good biosecurity measures is always a good idea on a farm. For more on that subject, read HERE.

For more information on the avian flu, there's a great video done by the University of Illinois Extension Service HERE.

Read the USDA Biosecurity Guide HERE.

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