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Protect Your Flock from Avian Influenza

Avian Influenza, information for small flocks and backyard poultry


Unfortunately, bird flu is in the news again..and it's a serious concern for all poultry owners in the Mississippi Flyway, which includes Illinois. A strain of highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), variant H5N2, has been discovered in numerous Midwestern states within the past month or so. This virus has not been transmitted to people or entered the food supply, but literally millions of chickens and turkeys have already died or been euthanized due to this disease.  It has affected both large commercial operations and small backyard flocks, so it's time for every poultry owner in Illinois to take precautions and begin monitoring for the disease. Here are some great places to find reliable information.


If you can only do one thing...

Download and print out this brochure from USDA APHIS.  It will teach you a little about avian influenza, how to identify the disease, and steps you can take to help prevent the disease from reaching your flock.  Share it with your friends who keep poultry.  If you prefer to watch, rather than read, check out this video, which elaborates a bit on the basics in the brochure.


What is Highly-Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and how is it spread?

HPAI is a highly contagious disease caused by a Type A influenza virus that affects many species of birds.  Infection among domesticated poultry flocks is often a result of exposure to migratory waterfowl, since these birds can be vectors of the virus without showing any outward clinical signs.  However, it can also be a result of exposure to surfaces that have been contaminated by the virus - such as clothing, boots, or vehicle tires - that have come in contact with the manure or other secretions of infected birds.  HPAI can spread rapidly through domesticated flocks, often resulting in 90-100% mortality within a few days.  The signs of infection can include:

  • Lack of energy and appetite
  • Decreased egg production and/or soft-shelled or misshapen eggs
  • Swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles, and hocks
  • Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs
  • Runny nose, coughing, sneezing
  • Stumbling or falling down
  • Diarrhea
  • Sudden death without any clinical signs

If you would like more detailed information on the biology and epidemiology of avian influenza, you can check out the following resources:


What do we know about the current (March-April 2015) outbreak?

The current HPAI outbreak has been caused by the avian influenza virus variant H5N2.  Instances of this virus have thus far been discovered and confirmed in commercial poultry flocks in half a dozen states in the Upper Midwest, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Missouri.  In addition, this virus has been confirmed in backyard flocks in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, and Kansas.  The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) will continue to post all confirmed findings of avian influenza, as well as stakeholder announcements that may contain further details.  Those of us here in northernmost Illinois should keep a particularly watchful eye on the outbreak situation in Wisconsin as it continues to develop.  If you prefer, you can also display global AI outbreaks on FAO's EMPRES mapping system.

If you'd like further details on the current outbreak, you can also listen to an archived media call hosted by the USDA and CDC in late April 2015, or tune into the upcoming University of Illinois Extension phone briefing on Thursday, April 30, 2015 at 1:00pm.  Call 888-983-3631 and enter passcode 86333472.  After the fact, you will be able to find the archived recording on the Extension Small Farms site.

It's hard to know how long this outbreak will last.  However, HPAI tends to thrive in cool, moist conditions, and spread readily by way of migrating waterfowl.  So, as we progress towards the seasonally warmer, drier conditions of the summer, the acuteness of the outbreak should, in theory, continue to diminish.


How do I prevent my flock from getting avian influenza?

If you haven't heard the term 'biosecurity' before, be prepared to start hearing it a lot.  Basically, biosecurity refers to all the measures you can take to prevent a disease from entering or leaving your farm.  USDA APHIS advocates for six basic biosecurity strategies to keep your poultry flock healthy:

  • Keep your distance - Isolate your birds from visitors and other birds.
  • Keep it clean - Prevent germs from spreading by cleaning shoes, tools and equipment.
  • Don't haul disease home - Also clean vehicles and cages.
  • Don't borrow disease from your neighbor - Avoid sharing tools and equipment with neighbors.
  • Know the warning signs of infectious bird diseases - Watch for early signs to prevent the spread of disease.
  • Report sick birds - Report unusual signs of disease or unexpected deaths.
In this case of avian influenza, we can place some additional specificity on these recommendations:
  • Keep your birds completely separated from wild birds that can carry the disease, especially migratory waterfowl.  Do your best to keep ducks and geese away from pastures and other areas in which your chickens day-range, and never allow your domestic birds to use surface water as a drinking source if it is frequented by wild waterfowl.
  • Make sure wild birds do not have a way to enter your poultry buildings.  Keep feed and water sources covered and enclosed to prevent contact by wildlife.  In the case of imminent threat, consider keeping your birds penned up in a safe, isolated enclosure or building until the threat subsides.
  • Practice fastidious hygiene of equipment, vehicles, and people around your flock.  Have dedicated boots and clothes for use in your bird enclosure.  Consider a small investment in effective disinfectants and make a footbath, so you clean and disinfect boots and tools before and after contact with your flock.
  • Keep visiting people, animals, and vehicles to a minimum on the premises.  Do not bring in birds from areas in which AI has been detected.  If you must bring in outside poultry, disinfect footwear and vehicle tires before they enter your farm. Be sure to keep the new birds quarantined for several weeks to ensure that they are disease-free.
Large commercial poultry operations spend a lot of time and resources developing and implementing expansive biosecurity protocols.  They understand the degree of risk that contagious disease represents to the sustainability of their businesses.  Smaller flock owners are often at greater risk because we spend little or no time considering biosecurity until an emergency strikes.  If you're interested in additional resources on biosecurity, check out:


If my flock does get avian influenza, what do I do?

The good news is that, as of this writing, HPAI H5N2 has not been detected or confirmed in Illinois.  The bad news is that any flock that comes down with HPAI is probably going to die of the disease, and any remaining birds will need to be euthanized so they cannot further harbor or transmit the virus.  Any poultry owner in Illinois who strongly suspects that their flock has been infected with HPAI needs to contact Illinois Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare at (217) 782-4944.  State veterinarians and/or animal health and welfare investigators will perform testing and, if HPAI is confirmed, a plan for depopulation and eradication will likely be swiftly developed and implemented.

This does not necessarily mean that your poultry keeping days are over.  If you want to keep birds again, a state veterinarian will likely provide a date at which you will once again be allowed to keep poultry on the premises.  You will need to perform a thorough cleaning and disinfection of your poultry facilities by 1) removing all contaminated feed, water, and bedding, 2) cleaning and sanitizing all feeders, waterers, nest boxes, and other removable equipment, and 3) disinfecting the effected building and premises.  After these steps, your coop and run ought to be safe and hospitable enough to house poultry again.