Avian Flu 2022
Strain: HPAI H5N1
As of 4/13/2022
I’ve been putting off publishing this one, as there’s so much that could be said and so many questions out there people have on the subject. This is going to be a longer article, with follow-ups as things progress and status or data changes. Our Avian Biosecurity article is a good complement to read with this one if you have birds, and I’ll be dovetailing to specifically address additional biosecurity measures during times of avian disease outbreaks. Check back soon for this, if it’s not posted already.
There are a lot of questions and concerns, along with misinformation circulating about this year’s avian influenza. I’d like to help answer some questions and help bird owners out there have a greater understanding of the situation and make a plan for the birds in their care.
What is it and why is it different than past viruses
This year’s virus is different than the one most recently seen in California, which was Virulent Newcastle Disease (VND). To the best of my understanding, it continued far longer than it should have due to the illegal cock fighting circuit continuing to spread the disease. The virus this year is known as HPAI H5N1. HPAI is abbreviated for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. The major difference with this virus is it’s highly pathogenic, meaning very easily transferable from bird to bird. At the point of writing this, it’s primarily been transferred via wild bird populations to commercial and backyard birds.
It has swept across the country at a very rapid pace.
While it hasn’t reached California yet, it is likely to arrive this year. Some of my friends in the zoo community are estimating by this fall with annual wild bird migrations. Due to the extremely fast spread from the east coast across the country westward, I’m predictive we’ll see the first cases in California by this summer.
Ok, so what do we do? Arm ourselves with education, biosecurity and a plan. Let’s break those down:
It’s important to understand a couple things.
The mass euthanasia that happened in 2002-2003 during Exotic Newcastle Disease (END) are not the same now as they were then. At that time exotic bird owners had basically no rights. Since then, groups such as the American Federation of Aviculture and Avicultural Society of America have lobbied for legislature protecting certain bird species. So if you have parrots, for example, those birds are suppose to be tested prior to determining euthanasia if they fall within a euthanasia radius of an infected property. Agricultural animals are being tested by sampling, to best of my knowledge, first prior to euthanizing the entire flock.
Fear of this doesn’t mean hide your birds or don’t report your sick bird. If you have a bird die without cause of death, it’s still recommended practice to send it in for necropsy. Our own farm’s policy is if any bird dies without obvious cause, we send it in to the state lab. For more on how to send in a specimen, view our article on How and Why to Necropsy.
If your neighbor within a certain mile radius contracts the disease, your flock will have to be tested. This is why it’s also very important to share about the disease with everyone in your area, as if one person gets it or brings it into their flock, it affects many people.
Keep a Visitor Log
Track every visitor onto your property, be it friend, neighbor, contractor, visiting family, etc.
Ask them have they been in contact with any poultry or birds. Has their vehicle?
Let them know to wear closed shoes as they’ll need to step through a foot bath.
How can you prevent bringing it home to your flock?
Limit visits to friends, neighbors, etc. who keep birds. If you visit don’t enter the poultry area or anywhere their birds are defecating (using the restroom).
Feed and pet stores can be a place to pick up disease. It can get tracked in on boots or clothing, many farm supply type stores have wild birds indoors or product is exposed outside during feed deliveries or long term outdoor storage that has also often been shipped from out of state (such as on hay and straw, whereas feed bags are shipped in closed cargo). Bird supply stores and hobby clubs for the keeping of birds function the same way.
Avoid poultry shows or bird expos for the time being.
Don’t offer wild bird feeders or waterers on your property in order to protect the birds you have. If you have a very large property and have water out for cattle or wildlife, place it away from your poultry or other birds as much as possible.
Maintain a ‘closed flock’ meaning don’t buy or bring home any new birds, as this heightens the risk of bringing in an avian illness.
If or when the virus reaches California:
Install a footbath at the doors of your house and at the entrance/exit of your aviary or coop. Anyone entering or exiting these areas needs to use the footbath, including guests.
Keep all guests OUT of your bird area. No one steps foot inside the bird area except you for their care, guests don’t get to walk through your aviary or coop or play with the birds, etc.
Order of operations: if you have an exotic bird(s) service them before you service your chickens, for example.
If you have outdoor poultry or birds, dedicate a specific pair of boots or shoes to their servicing/care. These should be easy to sanitize, not carry debris on the sole, and only be worn for servicing the birds and no where else.
If you’ve been pasturing or free ranging your birds, when it reaches the state it’s time to put them up. An enclosure with solid roof where rain runoff won’t enter their area, wire mesh small enough to prevent wild birds entering, and feeders/waters away from the side of the enclosure where wild birds could possibly defecate into the aviary. Make sure to add your footbath!
There’s no ‘boost your birds’ immune system’ or magic preventative…PUT THEM UP. Roofed enclosure with small wire. You need to prevent contact with wild birds and their feces, period. It’s as simple as that.
Biosecurity refers to the steps and actions you take to maintain the health integrity of your animals and property. Refer to this article and our articles on Avian Biosecurity.
Some Frequently Asked Questions:
Should I continue to free range my poultry?
-The short answer is no, not if you want to protect them with the best possible chance.
-The long answer is wait until the virus is found in your region of your state or you have cause for concern, then coop them up with a roofed enclosure and wiring small enough to prevent wild birds from entering. The main thing is to keep the wild birds’ feces away from your birds.
What about the announced ‘food shortages’ in regards to keeping poultry?
This is a tough one and a decision each homestead or farm will have to make on its own. Our own farm has opted not to offer to the public any egg operation, meat birds or chick sales this year due to the financial and fatality impact the disease poses to this area of our business. We personally considered rehoming all poultry until the disease has been eradicated as a precaution, however with world events and politics our family personally wanted to keep a few layers for egg production for home use.
How many chickens should you keep if you want to cut down your farm numbers over the disease period but not give them up entirely?
The standard number I see shared is two hens per person in the household to keep a family in eggs.
What would be the ideal poultry set-up during the outbreak?
An enclosed area using chicken wire or hardware cloth, any wiring small enough to prevent wild bird entry. A solid roof to prevent birds from perching above the enclosure and pooping into the enclosure. A closed water system (such as a nipple drip) or water away from the enclosure walls that a bird on the side of the enclosure could defecate into. A footbath with solution at the entrance/exit of the enclosure.
What to do for suspicious wild bird death?
If you find a deceased wild bird call your state and see if they wish to test it for H5N1. If so, wear disposable gloves, double bag it and follow their directions and protocols.
What is Mullenax Ranch’s plan?
Our own plan is currently to continue free ranging a small group of chickens and peafowl, but making preparations for when the virus arrives within our state or the next states over (NV, AZ, OR for example) we will enclose the birds. This is a difficult decision as we rely on our free ranging birds to help save our human lives here by deterring silent rattlesnakes on our ranch from appearing around our house and buildings. We may modify our decision and keep the peafowl loose for example as they have different behavioral patterns than the poultry, with our egg layers continuing their food making for our family in an enclosed and roofed aviary. In a normal, non disease period our poultry are rotated on pasture for egg production with a few free ranging to deter snakes.
A side note, if you have exotic birds in your house and leave the doors or windows open in the summertime consider adding screens. If screen doors aren’t in the budget check out the magnetic ones on Amazon. Living rurally, the wild birds consider my house an extension of their environment and may occasionally find themselves inside where I don’t want them. Putting up screens takes a few minutes and prevents them from coming inside and defecating in your house, your kitchen, or making contact your indoor birds or pooping into their cage or feed/water. Brainstorm on all the ways you can maintain biosecurity integrity at your house or farm.
Where to find more information and the latest updates
Center for Disease Control: Highly Pathogenic Asian Avian Influenza A(H5N1) Virus | Avian Influenza (Flu) (cdc.gov)
USGS Map of Cases: Distribution of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5 and H5N1 in North America, in Relation to Tribal Lands in the Conterminous United States, 2021/2022 | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov)
California State Vet’s letter: CDFA Letterhead (Color) (ca.gov)
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: USDA APHIS | 2022 Detections of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza
Alex Mullenax is past Vice President with the Avicultural Society of America and 10+ years as a State Coordinator with the American Federation of Aviculture for the Los Angeles/Orange County region of California. Her background is in private aviculture and she now farms and raises domestic poultry.
These are the expressed views of the author to the best of their knowledge. Reader should verify information and seek counsel from their state agricultural department website, APHIS and their licensed avian veterinarian.