In December 2014 it was confirmed that bird flu (also known as Avian Influenza or HPAI H5) has spread to the US for the first time since 2004.
Since December more than 40 million turkeys and chickens have been killed due to the virus.
This is a very worrying time for many backyard chicken keepers with many people being unsure how to best care for their chickens during this time.
Today we have compiled all of the latest information on bird flu to make sure you have everything you need to keep your chickens safe during this endemic.
What is Bird Flu (Avian Influenza)?
Bird flu (also known as Avian Influenza or HPAI H5) is a viral disease that affects wild birds, captive wild birds and domestic poultry (including backyard chickens).
There are two forms of avian influenza: low pathogenicity (LPAI) and high pathogenicity (HPAI).
The most common, low pathogenicity avian influenza, is mostly harmless and infected chickens will react with general flu/cold-like symptoms.
Highly pathogenicity avian influenza is extremely contagious and kills approximately 90% of all chickens that catch the disease.
In December 2014 bird flu, primarily the H5N2 subtype, was detected in the US and since then it has resulted in the death of nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys.
How Bird Flu Spreads
This outbreak in the US was likely caused by migrating waterfowl’s droppings. However bird flu can spread through many other forms. North Carolina State University write:
The AI virus is most often transmitted from one infected flock to another flock by infected birds, people or equipment.
The virus most often spreads from flock to flock. This happens when infected birds are moved to a new location and mixed with healthy birds, i.e. chicken auctions.
The healthy birds then infect other healthy birds and it spreads like dominoes.
The other way bird flu is most commonly spread is through clothing and shoes. Bird flu can live in manure for up to 100 days, so any clothes with contaminated muck on can spread to healthy flocks weeks/months after.
Since US poultry records began, HPAI has been identified in the US four times: 1924, 1983, 2004, and 2015. Each time it has been quarantined and eventually removed so there is no reason why we wont successful eradicate it again.
The good news is no human illness has resulted from avian influenza in America, but what does it mean for your backyard chickens?
Can Bird Flu Affect Your Backyard Chickens?
Simply put, Yes, bird flu can affect your backyard chickens and it would likely result in them dying.
Your backyard chickens are genetically no different to the large commercial farms which have been wiped out due to bird flu.
Since the outbreak in December, more than 160 instances of the virus have been identified across 15 states in the US. Of these 160 cases, around 16 of these have been backyard chicken flocks.
Around 10% of infected chickens have been backyard flocks whereas 90% has been commercial operations.
If anyone of your backyard chickens tests positive for highly pathogenicity avian influenza, then your entire flock will need to be humanely euthanized. This is to prevent the disease spreading to anymore flocks. Since last December nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys have been euthanized due to bird flu.
Bird Flu Symptoms
One of the difficulties with bird flu is that healthy chickens can be infected and show no initial signs of carrying the disease. This means that chickens ‘appearing healthy’ can spread the virus and you wouldn’t be able to visually identify the healthy or infected chickens.
However, once a chicken catches highly pathogenicity avian influenza, within hours it’s likely they will be dead.
Mike The Chicken Vet writes:
You can check your chickens in the morning and they appear fine, then come back at lunch and some of your chickens have died, then by late afternoon the majority of your chickens are dead- it’s that fast and that severe.
The only way to confirm if your chickens have Avian Influenza is a laboratory test- most states are currently offering this for free (head over to USDA to find your local testing lab).
With that being said some of the most common symptoms include:
- A general decrease in roaming and activity
- Blueness of the head area
- Reduction in their appetite
- Wet eyes
- Excessive flock huddling and ruffled feathers
- Fluid in the comb and wattles
- Decrease in egg production
- Legs bleeding underneath the skin
- Sudden death
If you notice any of these symptoms with your chickens make sure to properly quarantine them immediately.
This will help to prevent the disease spreading to any of your other chickens. Keep reading for a list of preventative measures you can take to reduce the chances of your girls catching bird flu.
How to Stop Your Chickens Getting Bird Flu
Whilst it isn’t possible to 100% prevent your chickens from catching bird flu, there are several preventative measures you can take right now to help protect your girls.
1) Restrict Wild Birds
The most effective measure you can take is to stop wild birds from coming into contact with your chickens.
This means you shouldn’t feed any wild birds or do anything else to encourage them to ‘stop-by’.
If you feel you have to feed wild birds, do so as far as possible away from your chickens and make sure to change your clothes and wash your hands after feeding them.
Also, as previously mentioned, bird flu spreads through migrating waterfowl’s droppings. So, you could add a roof to your chickens’ pen to stop any droppings falling into their pen.
I haven’t added a roof to my pen because the chance of droppings falling into a chicken pen is extremely small!
2) Run a Tidy Ship
To prevent your chickens getting bird flu you need to make sure you are keeping a tidy chicken coop. To do this you need to:
- Keep your feeders and waterers clean and don’t give wild birds’ access to these.
- Thoroughly clean any piece of equipment which you use with your chickens (shovels, rakes etc)- you can use Virkon S.
- Clean up any feed spillages so you don’t attract wild birds.
- Each week clean their coop out completely and disinfect it- again you can use Virkon S for this.
- Have dedicated clothing and footwear which you use when handling your chickens. Make sure not to wear this clothing and footwear anywhere else but around your chickens (this especially includes not wearing it around other chicken flocks.
3) Don’t Share Equipment With Other Flocks
Whilst bird flu is rife make sure not to share or reuse any equipment from your neighbouring chicken flock. This includes things such as rakes, shovels, chicken troughs or any other piece of poultry equipment.
This might seem excessive but this also includes reusing any egg cartons from your neighbours or other friends which keep chickens.
4) Limit Visits and Visitors
As an extra precautionary measure, during this time I’m limiting the amount of poultry events I attend and I’m not taking any of my chickens to poultry events. I’m also limiting the amount of other chicken flocks I visit.
If I do visit any other flocks or poultry events I make sure to thoroughly wash my shoes and clothes afterwards to ensure I don’t spread the disease.
Also, I have limited the amount of people I let visit my chicken flock to prevent anyone from outside bringing the disease to my girls.
5) Don’t Introduce Any New Chickens To Your Flock
As previously mentioned, during the early stages of the disease you can’t visually check if a chicken is infected. For this reason I’m not purchasing or introducing any other chickens into my flock.
Yes, you could quarantine new chickens for 30 days to ensure they don’t have the virus but I’m not willing to risk my existing flocks’ health during this time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list avoiding contact with other poultry “one of the best ways to prevent this disease”.
If you know the risks and still want to add new chickens to your existing flock, make sure to purchase your chickens from a reputable dealer who takes hygiene and cleanliness seriously.
What If My Chickens Already Caught Bird Flu?
If you think your chicken has already caught bird flu make sure you contact the United States Department of Agriculture immediately at 1-866-536-7593.
It’s your duty as a responsible backyard chicken keeper to report it immediately and to get professional help.
If you don’t report it your chickens will only suffer an excruciating death- it’s better for them to be humanely euthanized. Also there could be legal repercussions if you don’t report any instances of bird flu.
We have put together some of the most commonly asked questions about bird flu from our subscribers for quick reference.
Q: What happens if I eat an egg which was laid by a chicken with Bird Flu?
Chickens infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza don’t normally lay eggs. However if you did eat an egg laid by a chicken with bird flu, the World Health Organization reports “Proper cooking inactivates the virus present inside the eggs”.
Q: Can I eat a chicken contaminated with Bird Flu?
If you cooked the infected chicken so its temperature rises above 70°Celsius and make sure no meat is raw or red then it should be safe to eat. However I personally wouldn’t eat a contaminated chicken.
Q: Are humans at risk of catching Bird Flu?
Whilst in the US no human illness has occurred due to bird flu, in other countries people have died from it.
The risk to the general public is extremely low and for the time being there is certainly nothing to worry about.
As the University of Minnesota report, contaminated chickens don’t reach the consumer market so you shouldn’t be at risk of catching bird flu from chickens bought from Walmart.
Q: Should I Start My First Flock Now?
Several people emailed me letting me know they won’t be getting chickens until the bird flu scare is over.
I think this is an overly-cautious step and if you want to get chickens and raise them you should!
Just make sure to purchase your pullets from a reputable dealer and follow the safety steps outlined above and you should be fine.
One thing I would say though is, I won’t be introducing any new chickens into my existing flock for the foreseeable future to prevent the potential spread of the disease.
Whilst the virus appears to still be spreading, it’s important to remember that only a small amount (16 in total) of backyard chicken keepers have been affected so far.
Whilst scientists think they’ve found a cure to bird flu, it still hasn’t passed clinical trials yet.
Until then, make sure to visit USDA for regular updates and follow the biosecurity steps above to keep both your flock and yourself safe.
Let us know in the comments below, are you concerned about bird flu?