Winter 2016

Flu Birds

Tips for keeping your backyard flock healthy

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Illustration: Ward Schumaker

Michele Walsh, V01, Maine’s state veterinarian, responds to a reader’s question about avian influenza in backyard poultry.

Q : I have a flock of backyard chickens in eastern Massachusetts. Do I need to worry about the recent bird flu outbreak in the Midwest? If so, how do I keep my birds safe?

A : The short answer is yes. All domestic poultry—whether a commercial operation in Iowa with 1,000 egg-laying hens or a single Rhode Island Red that also doubles as a family pet in Massachusetts—are equally susceptible to the avian influenza virus strains that have crippled the U.S. poultry industry over the past year. While fewer backyard flocks have been affected by the current outbreak, we know that this virus really does a number on domestic turkeys, chickens, Guinea hens and other birds that people keep in backyard flocks.

Avian influenza typically gets introduced to a flock by literally dropping from the sky in the form of a fecal bomb. So the best protection is to house your poultry where wild birds—especially wild waterfowl—don’t have easy access to them. If there’s a pond or wetlands nearby that wild ducks or geese visit frequently, keep your animals away from that area. If you have a coop or chicken tractor [a mobile coop], use a fine mesh to keep small songbirds out, because there have been some reports that they carry the virus. Place feed and water containers inside a structure or away from your coop’s borders to discourage wild visitors. If your birds are free range, make sure they aren’t congregating around wild bird feeders, or better yet, ditch feeders altogether to prevent that interaction.

If you visit other people with backyard poultry, be sure to disinfect your hands, clothing and the bottoms of your shoes before going back to your own birds. Any new bird should be quarantined for at least 21 days before it’s introduced to your flock.

The number-one sign of avian influenza in backyard poultry is unexplained, sudden death. Infected birds sometimes have a lack of energy or appetite, decreased egg production or experience swelling or respiratory symptoms, like a cough or sneeze. If you suspect you have a sick bird, contact your state veterinarian. Information about the current outbreak is available at the USDA hotline: 866.536.7593.

Influenza viruses are infamous for their ability to mutate, or change, allowing the virus to infect other animals, including humans. We have not seen evidence of this with the strains that have caused the current outbreak in the U.S., but we are watching the situation closely.

Please email your questions for Ask the Vet to Genevieve Rajewski, the editor of this magazine, at Because of the volume of inquiries, we cannot respond to all submissions. For any pet health issue, owners should contact their veterinarian.

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