DOVER, Del. — The Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA) has been warning poultry owners since January to take extra precautions to protect their birds in light of detections of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in wild birds in the Atlantic Flyway. But after a case of HPAI was announced last week in a commercial poultry farm in New Castle County, DDA is reminding owners that biosecurity is the best way to protect bird health.
Biosecurity refers to everything that people can do to protect their flock to stop anything that causes disease away from the birds, property, and people.
Avian influenza is an airborne respiratory virus that spreads easily among chickens through nasal and eye secretions, as well as manure. The virus can be spread in various ways from flock to flock, including by wild birds, through contact with infected poultry, by equipment, and on the clothing and shoes of caretakers.
Wild birds typically do not show signs of illness, but they can shed the virus at high levels in their manure or droppings if infected. In fact, one gram of contaminated manure, enough to cover a dime, can infect one million birds. Therefore, Delaware poultry is at risk from exposure if they have access to areas where free-flying waterfowl and wild birds are present in the environment. Additionally, if a person steps in contaminated manure while out and about, they can bring the virus back to their domesticated birds, where the birds can eat it, causing infection.
So what can you do, especially when wild birds fly overhead, dropping fecal matter all over during their migration?
- Keep your poultry away from wild ducks, geese, and their environment, including ponds, lakes, and swampy areas.
- Restrict small flocks from sharing their habitat with wild waterfowl by maintaining outdoor enclosures with solid roofs and wire mesh or netted sides. Repair any holes or tears that would allow birds or rodents to enter.
- Provide feed and water in an indoor or covered area. Change it daily and promptly clean up any spilled feed so as not to attract wildlife.
- Wear designated farm shoes when working with your birds or use disposable shoe coverings each time you enter your flock area. If you have multiple chicken houses, have a dedicated set of footwear that you keep in each house. Use footbaths before entering a chicken house.
- Wash your hands before and after working with your birds to reduce the chance of spreading infectious particles.
- Clean and disinfect any equipment or bird housing/coops before bringing them onto your property. Avian influenza virus can survive in manure for several months, especially with high moisture and low temperatures.
- Starlings, songbirds, vultures, and other raptors can be carriers of avian influenza and not show signs of disease. Consider hanging a bird deterrent in the doorway of poultry houses while doors are open when working in the poultry house.
- Wash your vehicles and trailers after visiting other poultry facilities and go through a car wash before you return home.
- Keep visitors to a minimum. Only allow those people who have direct responsibility in taking care of your flock to come in contact with the birds. Keep track of everyone who comes onto your property at all times by using a logbook. If they had contact with other poultry, have pet birds, or had contact with wild birds (e.g., hunting), do not let them come in contact with your flock.
When adding birds to your flock, make sure to purchase them from a reputable source. The baby chicks purchased at local farm stores come from NPIP certified flocks tested and shown to be free from avian influenza. When they are two weeks old, these chicks will typically leave the store with their new owner, so they are considered low-risk for having the disease. However, once they are about three weeks old, they are more susceptible to contracting the virus from their new environment. Make sure to keep new birds or returning show birds separated from established home flocks for 30 days.
No matter the size, all poultry farms should be monitoring flocks for any signs of increased mortality. Pay particular attention to see if any birds show signs of respiratory illness or distress, such as sneezing, gasping for air, coughing, and/or runny nose. Other signs of HPAI in poultry can include swelling around the eyes, neck, and head; purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs; tremors, drooping wings, circling, twisting of the head and neck, or any combination; watery, green diarrhea; lack of energy, poor appetite; and a drop in egg production, or soft or thin-shelled, misshapen eggs.
Backyard flock owners who notice any of the signs of HPAI in their flock should contact the Delaware Poultry Health Hotline at 302-698-4507 or send an email to email@example.com with contact information, size of flock, location, and concerns. Backyard flock owners will be contacted if a sample needs to be taken. Do not take dead or sick birds to a lab to be tested or move them off-site.
Commercial poultry producers should follow the procedures of contacting the company they grow for when they notice signs of disease.
–Stacey Hofmann, Delaware Department of Agriculture