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‘We don’t want our flock to get sick’: Deadly bird flu outbreaks force couple to move flock indoors

Published: Apr. 7, 2022 at 11:28 PM EDT
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CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WWBT) - Sarah Darby and Ben Hill aren’t your average chicken keepers. Ever since they decided to raise their own flock in January 2021, they have vowed to do everything in their power to protect them.

“Once we found out we wanted to be chicken keepers, we went all-in,” Hill said.

This couple even went as far as building a chicken coop for their six chickens, but these days, you won’t find their flock roaming around in their custom backyard coop. Instead, Hill says you’ll find them indoors in a makeshift poultry penthouse in their attic.

“I actually spent 36 hours straight converting renovated attic space, with this separate ventilation from the rest of our house. They have a south-facing window; it’s actually the perfect space for them,” Hill said.

“We actually got the girls in on Jan. 23,” Darby said. “They’re in ‘flock-down’ now, just as we thought we were getting away from it.”

But Darby and Hill say this “flock-down” isn’t just for kicks. They went through all of this effort to keep their chickens safe from a highly contagious strain of Avian flu known as H5N1.

The deadly strain originated in Europe and Asia and has now made its way to the United States. According to the CDC and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are currently outbreaks in 24 states and Washington D.C..

The CDC says that highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5) viruses have been detected in U.S. wild aquatic birds, commercial poultry, and backyard or hobbyist flocks since January. These are the first detections of HPAI A(H5) viruses in the U.S. since 2016. The largest flock that has been impacted is a commercial table egg layer in Buena Vista County Iowa made up of more than 5.3 million chickens. That outbreak started mid-march.

One case was detected in the Commonwealth at a poultry farm in Fauquier County back in February, but since then, no new cases have been discovered in Virginia.

So far, more than 22 million birds have been affected across the U.S. due to the outbreak. Health officials call it the worst outbreak since 2015.

“We decided that since we’re bordering North Carolina, we’re going to go ahead and get the girls in before it happens here,” Darby said.

Though this couple’s avian attic arrangement may seem unusual, Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, says it isn’t such a bad idea.

“Backyard flock owners can do the same thing and if they have the ability to keep their flocks indoors, they should do that to the extent possible,” Bauhan said. “We call it biosecurity, and it’s essentially shielding your domestic poultry from exposure to wild birds.”

Bauhan says bird owners should avoid ponds with ducks and geese because the H5N1 virus can be found in their droppings. Just one positive case could devastate entire flocks.

“The general public, from a consumer standpoint, there’s not really a concern,” Bauhan said. “The concern really is for bird owners.”

According to the CDC wild birds can be infected with bird flu viruses even if they don’t look sick. The CDC also says you should also avoid contact with domestic birds (poultry) that look sick or have died, and that you should not touch surfaces that may be contaminated with saliva, mucous, or feces from wild domestic birds.

“If you are a bird owner you do need to be concerned because if you don’t practice biosecurity your birds could be at risk,” Buahan said. “Avian Influenza is generally not considered a human health risk and there haven’t been any human cases in the United States so far.”

Though the risk to people is low, the economic impact of a large-scale outbreak could be severe. Bauhan says the last outbreak in Virginia happened in the Shenandoah Valley in 2002, which impacted 197 commercial poultry farms and 4.7 million commercial turkeys and chickens in Virginia. The cost to the industry was estimated to be somewhere in the excess of $130 million.

Bauhan says that poultry is Virginia’s largest agriculture sector which employs around 17,000 people and has an economic impact of more than $5 billion across the commonwealth.

Egg prices are already beginning to surge due to this new outbreak. so far most of the fowl killed have been egg-laying chickens, causing the average price of eggs to jump by 52-percent since February, just ahead of the Easter holiday.

“One of the reasons our poultry farmers are on high alert and practicing very strict biosecurity is because of the economic threat,” Bauhan said. Avian Influenza can be devastating from an economic standpoint and the poultry industry doesn’t want that to happen again.”

After that incident, Bauhan says the Virginia Poultry Disease Task Force (VPDTF) was formed which consists of the Virginia Poultry Federation, representing the poultry industry, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and a number of other state agencies, which meets quarterly to discuss plans and contingencies for prevention and rapid response against Aviana Influenza.

“In the commercial industry, we have poultry farms that have strict biosecurity standards where we form a line of separation at our poultry house door and the farmers are using dedicated boots for that facility,” Bauhan said. “They’re cleaning and disinfecting their footwear, they are not walking around ducks and geese where you could come in contact with their droppings and come in contact without poultry house.”

In the months since relocating their flock indoors, Darby and Hill have used their Instagram account set up for their chickens @TheCoopOnTheHill to communicate with other chicken keepers both across the country and abroad to share tips on to safely maintain their flock. The duo says they are prepared to keep their flock housed indoors for more than a year if necessary.

“Through Instagram, we were able to kind of be prepared by seeing what Europe had been doing to prepare for this and people we had been following in other places that had been dealing with what they call flock down,” Hill said. “Anything from a hummingbird to a bald eagle unfortunately can be affected by this.”

“Basically we’re telling people to stop feeding the wild birds,” Darby said. “Our backyard is certified as a wildlife habitat through the national wildlife federation and we took down all of our bird feeders just because we don’t want those birds congregating and passing diseases back to each other or congregating and spreading disease on our property.”

The VPDTF says all bird owners should implement the following Biosecurity safety tips to prevent the spread of poultry disease:

  • Clean and disinfect vehicles and equipment – Disinfectants do NOT work properly on dirty surfaces. They can only kill organisms they contact directly. Organic materials (manure, dirt, etc.) prevent organisms from direct contact with disinfectants. Therefore, it is extremely important to remove any fecal material and other organic materials from equipment, etc., prior to using a disinfectant.
  • Wear sanitized coveralls and boots
  • Keep out unnecessary visitors and equipment
  • Avoid contact with game birds and migratory waterfowl
  • Know the warning signs of major avian diseases

“If a bird in your flock catches it, it could be dead within 18 hours and if one of your chickens gets it, they’re telling you to cull your entire flock,” Darby said. “We’re doing this so we can protect everyone’s flocks because we don’t want our flock to get sick, and then we get another flock sick.”

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