With the crisp autumn air and accompanying fall migration already here, nervous poultry owners are keeping a watchful eye on backyard flocks as experts warn that another round of the deadly bird flu—also known as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)—is just around the corner. Warm weather kept new outbreaks at bay, but the change in seasons will likely bring the return of the two deadly bird flu strains—H5N2 and H5N8—that wiped out nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys across the country last spring. While this could mean more economic turmoil for the commercial poultry industry, experts are also urging hobby farmers and non-commercial farmers who keep small “backyard” flocks to report any changes in their birds as soon as they occur.
Since December 2014, bird flu has appeared on more than 200 properties and affected nearly 50 million commercial and backyard birds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Of those, an estimated 10,000 birds were from backyard flocks in the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. The illness is expected to appear on the East Coast either this fall or next spring.
Dr. Shelley Mehlenbacher, Assistant State Veterinarian for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, believes that backyard flocks are just as susceptible as commercial flocks. She tells Civil Eats that the spring outbreak most likely went undetected in many backyard flocks because “the infection showed up in two states that have huge commercial poultry production areas and not as much backyard poultry.”
Yet a recent article in The Guardian points in another direction, suggesting that backyard birds might actually be more resilient than many of the birds raised in large, confinement-based operations, because the latter are bred for quick production, which could lead to lower immunity against HPAI.
Regardless, farmers who saw thousands of birds die in a matter of days may have been more apt to contact authorities immediately than those who own only a handful of chickens. This means that overall HPAI damages may not have completely taken into consideration the full extent of decimated backyard flocks.
According to Steve Olson, Executive Director of the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota, fall migration might actually make backyard flocks that come in constant contact with wild birds more vulnerable than commercial flocks. Many who own backyard chickens, turkeys, and ducks allow their birds to roam freely, which may be healthier for the birds in general, but risky this fall. Because the virus is spread through secretions from migrating waterfowl, the virus could virtually be found anywhere those birds land or pass over.
“Where there’s a lot of water and streams, wild birds land and feed right next to the domestic birds. In our case, it was turkeys, and the disease was transmitted from the wild birds to the turkeys,” said Olson.
His solution was to keep his turkeys in the barn at all times. “I think the backyard poultry people need to approach it in the same way as the commercial poultry industry,” he added.
The Future of our Feathery Friends
There are countless guidelines for backyard chicken owners available online. In addition to eliminating contact with migratory birds, the USDA suggests keeping shoes, tools, coops, and equipment extra clean as well as avoiding sharing tools or equipment with neighbors.
For now, experts believe that HPAI is limited only to birds and unlikely to infect other animals. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are also no signs that the virus has had any negative effect on people. Mehlenbacher adds that “a recent CDC study looked at the molecular structure of the virus and … it doesn’t appear to be mutating so it could affect people, which is a really good find.”
While this is positive news, Mehlenbacher suggests that it may be only short term. “When [the virus] shows up again,” she adds, “that is something the health department will be closely monitoring.”
Backyard chicken owners might also find some hope in the possibility of a vaccine. After last spring’s outbreak, the USDA spent over $700 million on containment and cleanup, with $191 million of that dispersed to producers to cover their loss and some of the funds funneled toward vaccine research. Lyndsay Cole, Assistant Director of Public Affairs for USDA-APHIS, told Civil Eats that the agency recently sent out a request for proposals for companies to develop a vaccine in hopes of building up the National Veterinary Stockpile. The agency’s Agricultural Research Service is also working on a vaccine. Neither will be available in time for the next bird flu season, and it remains to be seen whether either agency will make a version of the vaccine available for backyard birds.
Even with guidelines and protocol in place, Diane Hiener, a farmer located in northeastern Ohio with a flock of approximately 150 chickens, remains skeptical that most backyard growers will want to keep their typically free-ranging birds indoors. Hiener says that she benefits from being located away from waterfowl, but that farms that fall within migratory flyways should be concerned.
“Huge poultry operations with high levels of biosecurity couldn’t keep [the virus] out,” she says. “While I think that biosecurity is an important idea in backyard flocks, it may not be realistic.”