The recent resurgence of avian influenza – fueled by the return of migratory waterfowl that carry, but are typically not impacted by the virus – is causing significant damage to both commercial poultry and wild bird populations worldwide, while also impacting backyard flocks.
In this episode of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s ‘Extension Out Loud’ podcast, Amy Barkley, Livestock Specialist with Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops Program, and Nancy Glazier, Small Farms & Livestock Specialist with CCE’s Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops team, discuss the current avian influenza outbreak and its fallout.
As spring migration progresses, practicing sound biosecurity measures is the primary method for reducing the potential for an outbreak. Clean hands and a dedicated pair of boots for the coop are two basic elements of sound biosecurity practice. Removal of any wild bird feeders, for the duration of the migration period, can also mitigate the spread to nearby poultry. While it has been found in some mammals the threat to humans is low, at this point.
While associated by many with poultry flocks, avian influenza reaches far beyond the chicken coop. “We are also seeing with this particular outbreak, a huge number of wild raptors that are affected,” said Barkley. This is likely due to these raptors, as well as corvids such as crows, feeding on the carcasses of wild birds that were carrying the virus.
According to Glazier “avian influenza has been around for a very long time and in normal years… there may be the low pathogenic strains that are around.”
The spread of H5N1 can be rapid and devastating. “When this disease gets itself ramped up in a flock, it'll kill off a flock in about 24 to 48 hours,” said Barkley. Symptoms of an infected flock can include depressed appetite, sneezing, and decreased egg production. When an infected bird is found contacting the Department of Environmental Conservation is the essential first step.
NANCY GLAZIER: Well, good morning, good afternoon, whatever time you're listening to this. I'm Nancy Glazier. I am the small farms and livestock specialist on one of the regional teams for Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Team. And I've been with the team roughly 24 years.
PAUL TREADWELL: Great to have you join us, Nancy. And Amy?
AMY BARKLEY: Hi there. My name is Amy Barkley. I am the livestock and beginning farm specialist for the Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program. So I'm essentially Nancy's counterpart in the Southwest Region of the state. I've been with Extension for about three years. But prior to coming to Extension, I worked in the commercial poultry industry.
PAUL TREADWELL: Well, it's great to have you both here. And, Amy, it's really good to have your deep experience with poultry because today we're going to talk about avian influenza. It has jumped up in the news again. So I was just curious, what is the current, as of March 24, 2023, when we're recording this, what's the current status of avian influenza here in New York State and then across the nation?
AMY BARKLEY: So as of March 24, 2023, we are up to 17 confirmed cases in domestic flocks and kept wild flocks of birds in the state of New York. Additionally, we have seen about a little over 300 cases in wild birds. And when we compare this to the national average, we have seen over 58 million birds infected with avian influenza across the nation and many thousands of birds affected from the wild bird populations. Right now, we're looking at a pretty even split between backyard birds and commercial birds. And we expect that split to continue going forward.
PAUL TREADWELL: So avian influenza, are there different strains of it? And what is the current strain that is giving us concern?
NANCY GLAZIER: Avian influenza has been around for a very long time. In normal years-- and we're in an abnormal stretch right here. Normal years, there may be the low-pathogenic strains that are around. But we've gotten into this highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N1.
And the outbreak actually started just a little over a year ago, with the first flock identified at the end of February, 2022 in New York. Through the wild bird migrations, that's when we've had the uptick in cases. And so now we're just kind of gearing up that spring migration. You look up in the skies and the wild geese, whether the Canadian geese or the snow geese, are out and about with some ducks and other waterbirds. So that's what's transporting the disease around right now.
PAUL TREADWELL: It's not just chicken flu.
NANCY GLAZIER: No.
PAUL TREADWELL: So it really is more-- birds are affected across the board. Is that correct? Songbirds?
AMY BARKLEY: For the most part. So most of the infections that we're seeing are in wild waterfowl populations, as had Nancy mentioned. We are also seeing with this particular outbreak a huge number of wild raptors that are affected. And they're likely affected because they're preying on those sick and dead birds that they're finding in their wild habitats so that they can sustain themselves. We're also seeing some of these outbreaks in corvids, such as crows and ravens. And, again, we think it's because they're feasting on some of these wild bird carcasses.
PAUL TREADWELL: We've mentioned wild birds and flocks of chickens. Are mammals susceptible to H5N1?
NANCY GLAZIER: We have had some mammals that have been diagnosed with avian influenza. And I think those populations primarily in New York has been the red fox. And there was a skunk. And there was actually a captive leopard at the Syracuse Zoo that was diagnosed and died.
I think those wild animals are feasting on those carcasses that they find out in the fields. So it's a heavy dose of the virus that's impacting them.
PAUL TREADWELL: So just to get this question out of the way, for us upright bipedal mammals wandering around, it's really not a concern that is going to infect us at this point, is it?
NANCY GLAZIER: Not at this time. I think in the countries where people live with their chickens, there's a little bit more of a risk. And there has been less than a handful of human cases. But we all should practice biosecurity with our chickens, clean boots, all those things that we do.
We should be experts at that right now, Paul, with just the sanitation and working through COVID. It's wash your hands, cover your cough, and all those practical things. And one of my taglines over the years has been don't kiss your chicken.
AMY BARKLEY: I'll second that.
PAUL TREADWELL: Is that a thing? Is that a social media thing? Or is that a thing people have been--
AMY BARKLEY: Oh, it is. Oh, it is. I mean, cute, cuddly chicks? I mean, what more would you want them to put them up to your face and give them a kiss?
PAUL TREADWELL: Uh, that's not my first impulse.
So, Nancy, I just want to flip back. When you say a handful of cases, you're talking a handful of cases worldwide, right?
NANCY GLAZIER: Worldwide, yeah. I don't have the number on that exactly, but--
PAUL TREADWELL: Yeah, but New York State, we haven't had any infected human beings?
NANCY GLAZIER: No, no.
PAUL TREADWELL: OK. Good. If I have a small flock in my backyard, if I have half a dozen chickens, what are some of the symptoms-- well, I guess this goes beyond just half a dozen chickens. In general, what are the symptoms to look for? And how do you assess whether your flock is healthy or not?
AMY BARKLEY: That's a really great question. So with chickens, turkeys-- and when I say "chickens," I mean both meat chickens and egg-laying chickens-- the hallmark symptom is death without any other sign. When this disease gets itself ramped up in a flock, it'll kill off a flock in about 24 to 48 hours of those particular species.
The other hallmark that we see is depressed appetite, maybe sneezing among the whole bird population, bluing of the waddles or the comb of the bird. And we'll also see decreased egg production. So perhaps you have chickens that are producing an egg a day. You go out into the coop tomorrow, there are absolutely no eggs to be found. That is a sign that something might be cooking. And it might be highly pathogenic avian influenza.
I do want to make a point that waterfowl are the main carriers of this disease, in part because they survive it a little bit better than some of our other domestic poultry species. So they may be sick and you might not know. You might have some mortality, but it won't be as dramatic as it is with chickens or turkeys.
PAUL TREADWELL: So backyard ducks aren't going to evidence in the same way that backyard chickens are.
AMY BARKLEY: Right.
PAUL TREADWELL: If you notice one bird is evidencing these symptoms, can you pull that bird out of the flock and will the rest of the flock be safe? Or is it if one bird is infected, it just sort of is a given that they're all infected?
AMY BARKLEY: Yeah, so this disease transfers through your respiratory secretions and fecal secretions primarily. So if you have one bird that is sick with this disease in your flock and you go to isolate it, it's not going to help anything. All the birds in your flock will end up succumbing in one way or another. There's typically no recovery period. And that time of decreased health into death is very quick.
PAUL TREADWELL: So what happens when an infected flock is found? What are the procedures that are followed?
NANCY GLAZIER: As extension educators, we've gotten over the years the sick bird question. When it's one out of a flock, it's not a big deal. But when there tends to be a significant number, that's when it tends to be a serious issue.
And the best resource to reach out to is New York State Ag and Markets. And they'll send out a veterinarian and come and assess the situation. They'll sample. They'll have it sent off for testing. And they, actually, if it's a suspect case, they'll send it off for double testing, to make sure that it's actually highly pathogenic avian influenza. And then, unfortunately, the only control method we have at this time is complete depopulation of the flock.
AMY BARKLEY: And when Nancy says "complete depopulation," that means every single bird on a farm premises will be depopulated. They will be humanely euthanized.
PAUL TREADWELL: If I have two chicken coops and they're 500 yards apart, if one is infected, they're all going to go?
AMY BARKLEY: Correct.
PAUL TREADWELL: After that happens, what are the biosecurity procedures you have to go through to make sure that you can then have chickens again without the virus spreading to them?
NANCY GLAZIER: There has to be a pretty thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the premises. And then they need to be empty for 30 days if it's a barn or structure. If they're out, pastured birds or out in the yard, the recommendation is 180 days of no birds back on the farm. If this is a tough time of year for the virus to be killed because we haven't had the nice, sunny, warm days to kill the virus in the environment-- so if a farm does pastured poultry for a business, you think that could pretty much wipe out their whole season of pastured poultry.
We've been really promoting the prevention-- keep your birds in and in a covered structure, keep your boots clean, no visitors. Some of those general practices are good for any situation, but they're really critical right now.
PAUL TREADWELL: We talked about what happens when a flock is infected. And, Nancy, you mentioned a little bit about how do you keep a flock safe. But what are, just laying out methodically, what are the procedures to keep your flock safe? What are the biosecurity protocols you should have in place?
NANCY GLAZIER: It's great to have a dedicated pair of boots for when you enter your chicken house or whatever your bird facilities. Contain the manure on them and not track that across the yard. And on the other side of that, you don't want to track in any wild bird manure into your birds. So really, it's an excellent idea to keep a dedicated pair of boots.
Don't allow visitors. Watch out right now for any bird swaps, trading. Some of those things can raise issues. Ag and Markets, they're the ones that kind of set the limits on some of those operations right now.
Keep your hands clean. Even if you want to wear disposable gloves can help with just that cleanliness. Keep traffic down as much as you can. If you're kind of a commercial type operation, you really want to limit the visitors. So, Amy, what else am I missing?
AMY BARKLEY: Nancy, I think you got a big part of that. I think the only other thing I would add is if you're planning on running your birds outside, a lot of folks that raise pastured broilers raise them in what we call chicken tractors, which are essentially open-air pens that are moved across a field once a day or multiple times a day. We recommend that those folks who are raising broilers in that manner be really conscientious of where they're placing those chicken tractors over the course of the season, so making sure that when they first place those tractors, they're not in areas that wild birds frequent or have frequented at least 180 days prior and that once the broilers are out on pasture that those wild birds are not coming in and mingling or flying over or interacting with those birds in those pens.
PAUL TREADWELL: [INAUDIBLE] Well, I have to ask, is there a vaccine? I mean, is there a magic bullet folks can rely on for this?
NANCY GLAZIER: There is a vaccine. But it can impact our trade with our international partners. I think Amy is our better expert on that one if she wants to elaborate a little bit.
AMY BARKLEY: I'll elaborate to the best of my knowledge. So Nancy's right. So there is a vaccine. But should we use it, it would essentially create a state where the virus exists still in the United States. It's just controlled with the vaccine. So that's why it impacts our trade partners. And because of that, we don't have permission to use it here in the United States on our flocks.
PAUL TREADWELL: So what about backyard bird feeders? I know-- and, again, I might be misremembering, but I remember a few years ago there was this call for people to take their backyard bird feeders in because they were concerned about avian influenza. Is that a concern at this point?
AMY BARKLEY: This is a really difficult question because the reality is we aren't testing songbirds as frequently as we're testing raptor mortality and wild waterfowl, both mortality and as regular checks. So we don't really know the extent of avian influenza in our songbird populations. What we do know is that some songbirds can carry it. And we also know that the communication of wild songbirds with wild waterfowl and then potentially in communication with kept birds can spread the virus from those two populations.
So if you have poultry at home or if your neighbors have poultry, it's probably a good idea to take them down, just until-- at least until the spring migration is over. We might have another chance for this virus to dissipate in the summer, kind of like what we saw last year. But at this time of year, the risk is really high. And so if you don't have kept poultry at home, it's probably not going to help a whole lot. If you have kept poultry at home, it's another layer that you can provide a protection to your flocks.
PAUL TREADWELL: So what about hunting? Is that OK?
NANCY GLAZIER: Turkey season will be starting up in a month and a half or so. But for the most part, there isn't risks. Hunters are always looking for those healthy birds anyways. But it would be wise if they see a mass die-off of any of the waterfowl to report that to the DEC.
PAUL TREADWELL: So is that New York State DEC or US United States DEC?
NANCY GLAZIER: Yes, yes, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
PAUL TREADWELL: If you have a flock and it is infected and you have to euthanize those birds, is there a reimbursement program? Is there any? Because the economic hit, I would imagine, could be pretty huge on your operations. So are there any supports for farmers who have to go through this process?
AMY BARKLEY: There is some money set aside by the federal government to reimburse flock owners for the population of their flocks. And the way that that works is when Ag and Markets is called out to your farm, they will assess how many live birds are still on the premise. That live bird number is going to be the basis for payment. The payments are typically not going to cover the true costs of the bird. They're just to kind of offset some of that financial hit that producers and backyard flock owners will receive from the flock depopulation.
The challenge with this currently is that this particular outbreak is the largest domestic animal health disease outbreak in the history of the United States. It's unprecedented. There is not enough money in the coffers to pay every single person the full value that had been assessed originally. So right now there's a lot of talk about how these funds are going to end up getting paid out and how much they're going to end up being. And there's just a lot of questions right now.
I don't know the payment rate. We're not privy to that. And that's something that will have to be discussed one-on-one with flock owners and Ag and Markets.
PAUL TREADWELL: For those of us in New York State, we go to New York State Ag and Markets. But let's suppose somebody from Pennsylvania is listening. Is there an equivalent Pennsylvania Ag and Markets that they would report to? Is that pretty much universal across the United States?
NANCY GLAZIER: There is. And there's also at the federal level, there's the USDA Animal Plant Health--
AMY BARKLEY: --Inspection Service.
NANCY GLAZIER: --Inspection Service. Thank you very much. I was trying to bypass that acronym, APHIS. And they work at the national level. They'll come in and oversee the depopulation with Ag and Markets. But they're available as well to field calls and questions.
PAUL TREADWELL: So if anybody in New York State has concerns or thinks they might have a backyard chicken flock that's infected, their go-to contact is Ag and Markets?
NANCY GLAZIER: Yes.
PAUL TREADWELL: All right. We'll link to their resources in the podcast description so people can have access to that.
AMY BARKLEY: In 2014 and 2015 was when we had our last avian influenza outbreak. That outbreak essentially ran itself out in six months. And part of that was due to the increased killing of the virus because of the temperature and solar radiation associated with summer. Last year we didn't see that happen with this virus, even though it's still an H5N1.
We don't know what the timeline is for this virus. It could peter out the summer. It could get worse. We just don't know. And so we have to be prepared for anything.
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