Ever since the mainstream media finally began letting the general public know about the avian influenza (HPAI) epidemic, my social media and email have been flooded with questions from friends, family, and followers who raise poultry, know someone who does, or are simply very concerned about how this epidemic will affect the birds and other animals in their area.
Many of these people shared similar worries. So I’m addressing the 10 questions I received most frequently in the hopes of addressing any concerns you as readers may have.
Should I Euthanize/Sell My Chickens?
There is absolutely no need to get rid of your chicken flock because of HPAI. Domestic fowl can indeed contract this illness from wild birds. But you can take steps to help keep your chickens safe and healthy.
The US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) offers plenty of biosecurity resources online to help you defend your flock.
Should I Kill Any Wild Birds I See in My Chicken Run?
The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act specifically prohibits the killing, capturing, selling, trading and transport of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This includes disturbing wild bird nests, collecting feathers and eggs, and much more.
Federal law aside, killing wild birds in a manner that does not adversely affect your chickens is very difficult, not to mention time consuming. The best approach—which is unfortunately a costly one—is to prevent wild birds’ access to your chicken runs. Enclose your runs with quarter-inch mesh. The holes in any larger-gauge hardware mesh may not prevent small birds from getting through.
Should I Allow My Flock to Free Range?
If wild birds fly over or visit your property, it’s a strong possibility that wild-bird droppings can be found in your yard.
Avian influenza is transmitted primarily through the droppings, saliva and other bodily secretions of infected birds. So it would be in your flock’s best interest to keep your chickens confined rather than chance infection via free ranging.
Should I Allow My Pets to Roam Outdoors?
Many people wrote in concerned for their pets’ health during this crisis. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, it is uncommon for dogs and cats to contract HPAI. But it is indeed possible, especially if they come into direct contact with—or eat—an infected bird.
If you feel that your companion animal may have contracted avian influenza, isolate your pet at once and contact your veterinarian or your state veterinarian.
Turkey/Duck Hunting Season Just Started. Should I Still Hunt?
Domestic turkeys are highly susceptible to avian influenza. Minnesota actually has had a surveillance program for AI in domestic turkeys for years.
But HPAI has never been found in wild turkeys.
Waterfowl, both domestic and wild, appear to be resistant to avian influenza, according to Dr. R.M. Fulton, DVM, a Diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians. Dr. Fulton notes that waterfowl may not become sick with avian influenza but do serve as a reservoir for the disease.
If you choose to hunt, avoid hunting waterfowl. And, to be safe, leave your hunting dogs at home.
I Found a Dead Bird in My Yard. What Should I Do?
Should you find a dead wild bird on your property, do not touch it. Mark its position, then contact either your state veterinarian, your state’s veterinary diagnostic lab (Google “veterinary diagnostic lab” and your state’s name), or the USDA at 866-536-7593.
Make sure that your pets stay inside until the dead bird has been collected for analysis.
My Neighbor Put out Bird Feeders. Should I Ask Him to Take Them Down?
This really depends on how well you get along with—and how close you live to—your neighbor. If avian influenza has been confirmed in your area (ie., your county or town) and you raise a backyard flock in a suburban setting (1/4-acre to 1/2-acre lots), you may wish to explain to your neighbor that the wild birds gathering at their feeder pose a health threat to your microflock.
Be aware that, even if your neighbor is amenable to your request, wild birds being fed by someone in another part of town may still fly over your yard. If you live in a rural zone, with acres of land between homesteads, your request might raise eyebrows or result in laughter … or worse.
Always bear in mind that you can only control what happens in your own yard (or try to).
Read more: Biosecurity helps keep hens healthy.
My Bluebirds Are Back! Can I Put out My Nestboxes?
As much as it pains me to say it, putting out birdhouses of any kind during this avian influenza epidemic is not a good idea, especially if you keep chickens. Birdhouses invite wild birds to settle on your property for an extended period. This means that there’s an increased probability of interaction between your birds and the wild ones.
Additionally, some species of wild birds—bluebirds, wrens, tree swallows and house sparrows—will fight for nestboxes. House sparrows will kill for it.
Given the 100 percent HPAI mortality rate for birds, birdhouses may very well turn into final resting places.
I Think My Chickens Are Sick. What Should I Do?
If your chickens exhibit diarrhea, signs of respiratory distress or unusual nervous reactions—or if you have found one or more of them dead—do not handle your birds or their feeders, waterers, nestboxes or eggs. Leave the entire flock (including the chickens that appear perfectly healthy) as is and contact either your state veterinarian or your state’s veterinary diagnostic.
If you are not following biosecurity measures (designated clothing and footwear for your poultry areas), be sure to remove your shoes before entering your home. Change your clothing immediately and disinfect your hands. Understand that if one of your sick or dead birds tests positive for avian influenza, your entire flock may need to be euthanized.
Can I Catch HPAI From My Chickens/Wild Birds?
It is considered rare for avian influenza to cross over to humans. To date, there has been no known case of HPAI H5 (the current strain) in humans in the United States.
According to Dr. Fulton, in order for the disease to cross over to humans, an HPAI strain has to have very specific receptors: alpha 2,3 sialosaccharide (extremely rare) and alpha 2,6 sialosaccharide (rare). Without these receptors present, HPAI cannot cross over.
Should a human manage to contract HPAI, the virus may cause conjunctivitis (pink eye) and such seasonal flu symptoms such as fever, coughing, sneezing and muscle aches. The known and more severe cases of human HPAI H5 infection in other countries resulted from direct physical contact with infected birds or visiting/working at a live poultry market.
In other words, as long as you practice proper biosecurity and thoroughly wash your hands after working with your flock or handling wild-bird feeders, your chances of contracting HPAI are extremely low.