April 12, 2023
by Nancy Barr
Poultry can be affected by many types of diseases, including highly pathogenic avian influenza. HPAI is a disease that is highly contagious to domestic birds and can have devastating effects on poultry flocks of all sizes, in commercial farms and backyard farms alike.
So far in 2023, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) has detected two cases of HPAI in noncommercial flocks. In 2022, Michigan had 19 cases of HPAI in noncommercial flocks and one case in a commercial turkey flock.
HPAI remains a threat to domestic poultry, especially in the spring months as migratory birds head back north. The virus seen in 2022 and continuing into 2023 is different from previous outbreaks in that it is persisting in wild bird populations. The threat to flocks is primarily from wild birds, which are carrying the virus, so you must take steps to protect your flock.
To protect your birds from HPAI, one of the most important things you can do is to keep your domestic birds away from areas shared by wild birds, especially waterfowl such as ducks and geese. Feed your birds in the coop and clean up any spilled feed so wild birds aren’t coming near your birds to feed.
Songbirds, starlings and sparrows are considered a low risk for carrying the virus but can still bring the virus to your birds on their feet and feathers.
It is important to keep your poultry away from bodies of water that may be used by wild birds. Now is the time for all poultry owners, including backyard farmers, to be vigilant in their protection against avian influenza. Following these seven biosecurity measures will help to keep your flock safe:
1. Avoid exposure to wild birds or waterfowl. Feed your birds indoors and clean up spilled feed quickly. Keep your birds away from puddles, ponds or lakes that may be visited by wild birds. Change your shoes and clothing before entering your coop so that you don’t carry virus into your flock, especially if you have been in an area with wild bird activity.
2. Keep your distance. Showing your chickens to friends and family can be fun, but it is best to restrict access to your birds to keep them healthy. If you go to swap meets or poultry shows, change your clothes and shoes afterward and separate birds that have been to the show until you are sure they are healthy before reintroducing them to your flock.
3. Keep it clean. A clean henhouse is a safe henhouse. Remember to always clean and disinfect your clothes, shoes, equipment and hands before and after entering the place where your birds live. Store feed safely, feed in the coop and quickly clean up any spilled feed.
4. Keep them covered, when possible. It may seem contrary to free-range trends, but keeping birds inside and covered will protect them from exposure to flying wild birds. It is especially important in the spring months or when wild ducks and geese may be near your property.
5. Use dedicated equipment. It’s tempting to borrow equipment you don’t have from a neighbor, but that can be dangerous for your birds. Only use your own poultry supplies.
6. Know the warning signs. If you see a sudden increase in bird deaths; sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge, watery or green diarrhea; lack of energy; poor appetite; drop in egg production; swelling around the eyes, neck and head; or purple discoloration of wattles, combs and legs, there is a possibility that your birds may have avian influenza.
7. Report immediately. Having spent more than two decades with the state veterinarian’s office in Michigan, I can personally attest to the importance of reporting any suspicions of illness. Notify MDARD if you have sick or dead birds immediately. A rule of thumb is if you have two or more dead birds within a 24-hour period, it is significant. You can contact your flock veterinarian or call MDARD at 800-292-3939 or 517-373-0440 after hours.
If you see sick or dead wild birds near your flock, report those to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources by calling 517-336-5030 or filling out an observation report.
Remember that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the risk to people very low from HPAI, and poultry products are safe to eat when handled and cooked properly. Additional resources for backyard poultry owners can be found at mipoultry.com. By working together, we can help protect the lives of millions of birds.
Barr is a DVM and executive director of Michigan Allied Poultry Industries.
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