***Newly updated for 2022***
Whether you keep chickens or not, you likely heard reports about the Avian Flu or Bird 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 51 million chickens just in the United States.
However, unless you lived in that proximity, maybe you weren't all that concerned about it.
Avian Flu in Backyard Chicken Flocks
Avian Flu Spread in 2022
And of course, more recently, news of another, more serious human virus has been crowding the airwaves, but the bad news is, the avian flu is still around.
It has just been reported ( February 2022) that the avian flu has been found in poultry flocks in Michigan, Indiana, Virginia and Kentucky, most recently on Long Island and also in several counties in Maine.
In early March, two cases of avian flu were found in backyard poultry flocks in Iowa, the state that leads the United States in egg production.
Although usually concentrated in commercial chicken flocks (just this month 240,000 broiler chickens at a Tyson facility in Kentucky were found to have Avian Influenza and will be euthanized), but it also can spread to backyard flocks quite easily.
Dangers of Avian Influenza to Humans
Avian Influenza is primarily spread by wild birds, but it can be a serious threat to backyard chicken flocks, and it IS still spreading. In fact, experts are warning of elevated risk in the United States currently.
And alarmingly, since I first wrote this post back in 2015, it has also spread to humans. To date, 239 cases of bird to human spread have been reported worldwide. Fortunately, no cases of spread to humans in the United States yet. But it's likely just a matter of time.
2019 Update: Case of Avian Flu found in a human in Nepal.
The Spread of Avian Influenza in the United States
This map from the USDA shows where the most avian cases appeared back in 2015.
This time around, it's mainly hitting the East Coast of the United States.
2020 Update: Cases of Avian Flu detected in birds in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Republic of Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, France and Sweden.
2022 Update: Georgia acts to Protect Chicken Industry after Bird Flu Outbreaks
USDA Confirms Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in a Flock of Commercial Broiler Chickens in Kentucky and Backyard Mixed Species Flock in Virginia
Avian Influenza Detected for the 1st Time in Maine
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.
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.
And there's some really helpful advice and information in this article from the UK about Biosecurity and Preventing Disease.
No Treatment or Cure for Avian Influenza
For the rest of us, all we really need to know is that wild birds (mainly migratory waterfowl at this point) carry and transmit it - and it can infect your chickens.
Sadly, there is no treatment or cure for avian influenza, although there is a vaccine that is being developed, but it's not currently available for backyard flock use. And unfortunately avian influenza spreads very quickly, and it's fatal about 90% of the time.
If avian influenza is detected in your chickens, it's very likely that your entire flock will have to be euthanized. And that's scary.
Avian Influenza in Waterfowl
Interestingly, the avian flu occurs naturally in wild waterfowl. Wild birds, ducks and geese as well as domestic ducks and geese can be carriers, but are generally not affected by it.
Also, meat and eggs from infected birds is safe to eat as long as it's properly cooked.
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. And in fact, if the avian flu is found in your area, your best defense is to stop free ranging immediately and cover your pen or run to prevent wild bird droppings from coming in contact with your flock.
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.
But be aware that confirmed infected flocks are generally 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
- discolored combs and/or feet
- sudden death
Report sick birds or unusual bird deaths to your state or federal officials, either through your local veterinarian, state avian lab or state university poultry science department or through the USDA's toll-free number at 1-866-536-7593.
Signs of Infection/Symptoms of Avian Flu in Humans
Although at this point in time, it's unlikely for you or your family to become infection with the avian flu, it has been discovered to be able to transmit to humans.
Common symptoms of avian flu infections in people can include:
- difficulty breathing
- eye redness (or conjunctivitis)
- fever (temperature of 100ºF or greater)
- muscle or body aches
- runny or stuffy nose
- sore throat
As with seasonal flu, some people are at high risk of getting very sick from bird flu infections, including pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems and people 65 and older. (Source)
Prevention of Avian Flu in Backyard Chicken Flocks
The AI virus can live in manure for more than 3 months and indefinitely in temperatures below freezing. The virus is killed by heat, drying out and various disinfectants and cleaners.
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 practice good backyard biosecurity measures to try and 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 at 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 (bleach, Comet, industrial strength vinegar and other approved cleansers can be used to kill the AI virus)
- 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.
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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