How backyard chicken owners are protecting their flocks from the deadly bird flu outbreak

A deadly flu virus has spread among birds across the United States Since last week, Pennsylvania had the second highest number of birds affected in the country, after Iowa. A Lancaster County poultry farm killed more than a million birds earlier this month to prevent the virus from spreading further, with more than 100 farms within a six-mile radius under quarantine.

Although bird flu poses a low risk to the public and there have been few cases among backyard chickens, owners in the area are still concerned. They try to protect their birds – which they consider pets – from infection.

Allison Sanka, a financial advisor and small business coach in Chester County, keeps five chickens at home. She said she and others she knows who have chickens have been nervous about the flu since a wild bald eagle died of an infection in the county last month.

Normally, she would let her chickens run free in her yard under her supervision, so they could dig for the worms. But since hearing about the spread of bird flu, Sanka hasn’t let her chickens out of their coop and pen.

“They’re not happy,” she said. “They will be screaming and giggling very loudly at the door and trying to call us. It sounds ridiculous, but they know that if they make a lot of noise, in general, we will go there.

“Every time we open the door they try to escape…we have a couple who are very sneaky and can try to get past us very quickly and get out, and we had to run and grab them.”

Catching a running chicken is very difficult – as Rocky Balboa found out when he chased one as practice.

Sanka has boots that she only wears in the chicken area and cleans them with bleach and water, so as not to accidentally introduce the virus, which can be spread through bird droppings infected. She used to bring her hens weeds from the garden to peck at, but lately she’s only been giving them lettuce from the grocery store or leftover food to nibble on.

She also watches for any signs of respiratory infection in her chickens, such as coughing, wheezing or bubbles in the eyes.

Currently, there is no treatment for infected birds, said Heather DiGiacomo, a small animal veterinarian at Newtown Square Veterinary Hospital in Delaware County, and also a chicken owner. She sees chickens in her cabinet and the owners have asked her how to protect their birds from the virus.

If chicken owners see any problems with their birds, they should call the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Animal Health & Diagnostic Services at (717) 772-2852 to see if their birds need to be tested, said Patty Dunn, clinical professor at Animal Diagnosis Lab. at Penn State. She said scientists can come to them and collect a chicken to test for the flu virus at one of three labs in Pennsylvania.

She said owners of backyard chickens should monitor their birds for signs of illness and separate them from other birds, wild or domestic.

“I’ve worked in this discipline for over 30 years, and probably 20 percent of my work over the last 30 years has been testing for avian flu,” Dunn said.

The last bird flu outbreak in the United States was in 2014 and 2015, but it wasn’t as widespread as this outbreak, said Bryan Richards, emerging disease coordinator at the US Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center. Richards said he and his colleagues, along with partners from other federal agencies and tribal nations, have been tracking this bird flu since the first case in Canada late last year. He said he was concerned as a backyard chicken owner himself, with 13 hens at home.

In 2015, there were approximately 100 wild birds affected in the United States and Canada; this time there are more than 700 so far, Richards said. Also, this time around, there are more species affected, including migratory birds like Canada geese.

It is possible that as migratory birds move north and disperse instead of congregating in large groups, the virus will not spread as easily and die out. That’s what happened with the 2015 outbreak, Richards said.

“We’re hoping that…at least in wild birds…we’ll start to see it go down compared to the last two months, and so the level of threat in the environment should go down as well.”

However, this has not been the case in Europe, where birds have been confronted with this virus for the past two years. The virus didn’t go away over the summer, so Richards said he and his colleagues were monitoring what was happening in North America.

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