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How to protect backyard chickens from avian flu

To minimize the potential exposure of H5N1 to domestic fowl, the state Department of Agriculture has issued several recommendations, including asking backyard poultry farmers to register their coops and restricting public access to chickens at the N.C. State Fair and at other public events, including cancellation of this fall’s Bull City Coop Tour.
To minimize the potential exposure of H5N1 to domestic fowl, the state Department of Agriculture has issued several recommendations, including asking backyard poultry farmers to register their coops and restricting public access to chickens at the N.C. State Fair and at other public events, including cancellation of this fall’s Bull City Coop Tour. TNS

Wildlife gardeners tend to enjoy the outdoors, and many are animal-keepers as well, whether it’s bees, bat houses or flocks of chickens under their care.

With that in mind, I wanted to address concerns that some gardeners are having about an avian flu strain that hit hard in the Midwest last fall and spring and may be winging its way now toward North Carolina.

The highly pathogenic strain of bird flu, known as H5N2, found its way from Asia across the Bering Strait to North America in 2014, causing deaths of chickens and turkeys on dozens of farms.

Wild waterfowl, such as ducks and swans, carry the virus, but it rarely makes them sick. In contrast, the virus is quite deadly to flocks of domestic chickens, turkeys and ducks, which are less likely to have genetic resistance to the disease.

We haven’t had any reports of this flu in North Carolina.

Sarah Mason, N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services

“We haven’t had any reports of this flu in North Carolina, although we have been expecting it since so many flocks were decimated in the Midwest last fall and spring,” said veterinarian Sarah Mason, director of the poultry division at the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. “We remain concerned and are continuing to be careful because warm weather has delayed migration for many flocks this fall.”

When the birds migrate south from Canada across North Carolina along the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, they bring the risk that domesticated birds, including backyard chickens, could contract the flu and die. The flu virus is often present in bird droppings and can be spread through air or water sources.

To minimize the potential exposure of domestic fowl, the state Department of Agriculture has issued several recommendations, including asking backyard poultry farmers to register their coops and restricting public access to chickens at the recent N.C. State Fair and at other public events, including cancellation of this fall’s Bull City Coop Tour.

Cutting the public events was “a huge loss,” said M’Liss Koopman, who helps organize the Tour d’Coop in Raleigh each spring. “These are fun events that really educate the public about poultry and the need for humane care for these birds.”

However, owners want to do whatever is needed to keep their flocks safe, Koopman said.

“There was a great deal of concern among folks who keep backyard chickens here in Raleigh and Cary, when the state asked for everyone to register their coops last fall,” she said, adding that many owners were worried about having to euthanize their flocks in the event of an outbreak.

“Overall, I think the avian influenza scare has forced all bird owners to really think about how they house their birds, and what level of risk they are comfortable with in terms of having their birds outdoors, and allowing others to interact with their birds.”

For those with small flocks, a sturdy enclosed coop or fenced area should do the trick.

Birdseed and the plants that attract songbirds aren’t a big draw for waterfowl, as most prefer beetles, snails, water fleas and other insects found on the edges of lakes and ponds.

“But keep in mind that a pond or any other water attraction could draw migratory birds, so you won’t want to let the chickens get to the pond,” Mason said.

Mason applauded the approach taken by wildlife gardener and part-time chicken-keeper Anne Berry of Chapel Hill, who has moved her songbird feeders away from the coop to the other side of her property as a precaution.

Perhaps we’ll be lucky and the highly pathogenic bird flu won’t find its way into our area.

Reach Elder at wildlifechatter@gmail.com.

More Information

Signs of avian flu: If your chickens show signs of nasal discharge and decreased appetite, are laying fewer eggs or experiencing unexplained death, call the state veterinarian’s office at 919-707-3250 for testing.

Why and how to register your flock: The state veterinarian has asked all owners of backyard chickens to register their flocks to help state officials alert owners if there is an outbreak. For details on how to register and a Frequently Asked Questions section, go to ncagr.gov/avianflu/Small-Flock-info.htm.

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