Agriculture

Farm Beat: Chicken raisers must watch for bird flu, experts warn

Isaiah Parrish, 12, opens the door to the family’s chicken coop Sunday to let the birds out at his home in Spokane, Wash. Backyard poultry producers in the state are being told by state officials to monitor their flocks after a deadly avian flu outbreak in the area.
Isaiah Parrish, 12, opens the door to the family’s chicken coop Sunday to let the birds out at his home in Spokane, Wash. Backyard poultry producers in the state are being told by state officials to monitor their flocks after a deadly avian flu outbreak in the area. The Spokesman-Review (Wash.)

People who raise chickens – whether it’s a few in a backyard or tens of thousands on a commercial farm – are getting advice on protecting them from bird flu.

Two “highly pathogenic” strains of avian influenza have been detected in migratory waterfowl in Butte County, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, experts at UC Davis said this week. They urge backyard chicken owners to keep their flocks under roofs, and they remind industry people of the strict measures always in place.

The disease does not infect people, but it can pose a threat to the industry. Chickens brought about $500 million in gross income to farms in Stanislaus and Merced counties in 2013, according to their agricultural commissioners, and San Joaquin added a little more.

Those counties lie along the Pacific Flyway, traveled every winter by wild birds from Canada and Alaska. Many of them end up in the string of refuges along the San Joaquin River.

“There are lots of birds that winter and establish roosting and feeding habitat in California wetlands and agricultural crops,” said Maurice Pitesky, a poultry specialist with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, in a news release. “If you are a poultry owner, either backyard or commercial, and live in proximity to waterfowl and their habitat, your birds are at risk.”

The detected strains, H5N2 and H5N8, have not been found in U.S. commercial poultry. They did turn up in commercial flocks in British Columbia and backyard flocks in Washington and Oregon.

Residents might enjoy having chickens to produce eggs or meat, or just as pets. And they might have a vision from long-ago days of the birds cavorting in an open yard. Maybe they should rethink it.

“Both backyard and industry should keep their birds indoors today, if at all possible,” said an email from Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. “The threat of migratory fowl flying over California and dropping feces and/or coming into contact with backyard birds is very real.”

Mattos, whose group is based in Modesto, said the industry has rules in effect at all times, not just when the threat spikes.

“All people who get near birds should have special coveralls and gloves, plus shoes that are disinfected,” he said. The farms do not allow visitors, unless there is a “special need,” because they might bring bird droppings on their shoes, clothing or vehicles.

Mattos said backyard owners should follow the same steps, including signs that keep visitors away from the flocks.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

REPORTING BIRD FLU

▪ Backyard chicken owners who observe illness can call the sick bird hot line at the California Department of Food Agriculture, (866) 922-2473.

▪ Sick or recently deceased chickens can be submitted for examination at a state laboratory, including one in Turlock. Call (530) 752-8700 or go to www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu.

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