What to Know: Avian Flu Outbreak

The news coming out of nearby chicken farms is bleak.  In Jefferson County Wisconsin they had to kill off their entire flock of 3 million chickens.  A second farm was also hit with 46,507 birds being euthanized.  Then sadly within the last week, it was confirmed that wild birds are carrying the avian flu. The news is not good for all farmers with chickens or other poultry.  Egg shortages are likely, but so is poultry meat shortages such as chickens and turkeys.  We will be going into our summer season just hoping that all our chickens stay healthy.  So what is going on?

What Is It?

Similar to what we have learned from the pandemic, avian flu is affecting birds the same way.  The strain is called H5N1 and it is COVID for birds.  Thankfully there are limited cases of H5N1 crossing over into human populations, and if it does the cases are typically mild.  However, H5N1 is destroying flocks.  If one bird is found with it, the entire flock needs to be "destroyed" (that's the actual lingo for what they do to the birds, which is compost them safely).  So far to date, 33 million birds have been killed - most done to try to contain the outbreak.  

From Science.Org, the information is staggering. They state, "Poultry farmers have destroyed nearly 33 million chickens and turkeys in a bid to save other flocks and curb economic losses. Meanwhile, the virus has killed an untold number of wild birds; researchers have so far documented infections in 51 species, including bald eagles and great horned owls. That’s more than twice the number of species known to have been infected during the last North American HPAI outbreak, in 2014–15." The news is not looking good. 

Why Pasture Raised is At Risk

Everything online, when farmers research states that poultry should be limited from wild birds.  Most often the official verdict is to move the flock indoors.  Kirwan notes on Wisconsin Public Radio, "Officials are cautioning poultry owners to use strong biosecurity measures and move birds indoors if possible."  She even mentions that zoos and animal sanctuaries near Milwaukee, Racine and Madison have temporarily closed their aviaries or are taking measures to limit exposure to wild birds.

Having pastured poultry does involve having our flock interact with more wild birds.  Geese are flying over, pooping in the pasture, Eagles and hawks visit more often than we'd like for a meal.  Realistically it makes sense to move the flock inside. 

Why Pasture Raised May Not Be At Risk

However, there has been some push back to the idea of moving flocks inside. Some bring attention to what we have learned from the pandemic, that putting everyone inside was actually more destructive to people's health. Not to get political, but that is a researched based fact.  And obviously we are not as worried about a chickens mental health, but by removing their access to pasture grass, bugs, flock interactions, sunshine, I worry about what that can do to the flock's physical health. Putting that many chickens inside doesn't seem feasible or healthy. 

Then also, most commercial flocks do keep their chickens inside.  It is more cost effective to have chickens indoors, easily accessed, biosecurity is easier to maintain, etc.  And yet the commercial flocks are also being hit, worse than most backyard flocks.  The maps are almost always showing commercial flocks as the farm that has to kill all of their poultry.  So if they are still having H5N1 show up, maybe putting the flock indoors is not the solution.  

What You Can Do

There has been no government call to take down bird feeders, but some ornithologist have called for that.  The current thought is that song birds have not been really effected, but it might be helpful to remove a common meeting place for them.  However, many birds rely on easy food from bird feeders.  With a backyard flock we have been asked to take down ours.  So I would say, removing your bird feeder is up to your discretion. 

Something to watch for, "the DNR asks the public to email or call with reports of waterfowl, waterbirds, raptors (especially bald eagles) and avian scavengers such as crows, ravens and seagulls showing tremors, circling movement or holding their heads in an unusual position. These symptoms may be a sign of HPAI (H5N1). These reports can be made to the DNR Wildlife Hotline by emailing DNRWildlifeSwitchboard@wi.gov or by leaving a voicemail message for a return phone call at 608-267-0866."

"Anyone who observes sick or dead birds should minimize contact with them. Do not touch dead birds or wildlife with your bare hands. If you have to touch a dead bird, wear gloves or use a plastic bag to put it in the garbage. Wash your hands with soap and water after handling and throw away any gloves."