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Avian Flu in Backyard Chicken Flocks

Learn the risks of avian flu to your backyard chicken flock - and how to protect them from becoming infected.

**NEWLY UPDATED for 2021**

Whether you keep chickens or not, you likely heard reports about the Avian Flu (avian influenza) which had been found primarily in chicken flocks in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest in 2015. That outbreak led to the death of more than 50 million chickens just in the United States.

However, unless you lived in that proximity, maybe you weren't all that concerned about it.

And of course, more recently, news of another, more serious virus has been crowding the airwaves, but the bad news is, the Avian Flu is still around.

It's primarily spread by wild birds, it can be a serious threat to backyard chicken flocks, and it IS still spreading.  In fact, experts are warning of elevated risk currently the United States currently.

And alarmingly, since I first wrote this post, it has spread to humans. To date, 239 cases of bird to human spread have been reported worldwide. Fortunately, none in the United States yet. But it's just a matter of time.

This map from the USDA shows where the most cases appeared back in 2015.

2020 Update: Cases of Avian Flu detected in birds in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Republic of Ireland, Belgium,  Denmark, France and Sweden.

So should you be concerned about your backyard chickens? And by extension your family.

In one word: yes. 

You should be very concerned. Many of the European countries have instituted lockdowns of backyard flocks, not allowing them access to the outdoors for the duration, to try to stop the spread of the avian flu.

Avian Flu in Backyard Chicken Flocks

All the technical, medical and scientific facts can be found 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 because they're more likely to come in contact with wild birds.

Interestingly, the avian flu occurs naturally in wild waterfowl. Wild birds and domestic ducks can be carriers, but are generally not affected by it. 

And at the point when I first wrote this post (in 2015), it wasn't being spread to humans but as with any pathogen or bacteria, over time it can - and will - mutate.

2019 Update: Case of Avian Flu found in a human in Nepal. 

Signs of Infection/Symptoms of Avian Flu in Backyard Chicken Flocks

While the virus is highly contagious and fatal to chickens 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.

Some early, visible symptoms of avian flu 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

Prevention of Avian Flu in Backyard Chicken Flocks

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 backyard chicken keepers aren't going to want to go to that extreme, at least try to take some steps to reduce the risk to your flock.

Steps to prevent the spread of avian flu:

  • 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 livestock fairs or 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

Treatment for Avian Flu in Backyard Chicken Flocks

There is no treatment or cure for the avian flu. 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 for any chicken keeper.

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. 

If you notice symptoms or experience unexplained death in your flock, it is important to report them by contacting your veterinarian or state avian lab, state department of agriculture or state university poultry science department. 

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

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 is always a good idea on a farm. 

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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