Few things are cuter than a fuzzy baby chick, but there can be disease and bacteria hiding in those feathers. Poultry scientists recommend practicing biosecurity at all times when interacting with birds. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

There’s a new virus to worry about — but this time, it’s for the birds.

Outbreaks of avian influenza have been wreaking havoc in Europe and Asia for the past year. Within the last month, the virus has found its way to the Atlantic coast of Canada, in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Now Maine has the potential to be the next hotspot for this avian influenza if certain preventative measures are not taken immediately.

The avian influenza is carried by waterfowl and shorebirds, but they often don’t show signs of the disease, said Carolyn Hurwitz, assistant state veterinarian at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Chickens, turkeys and game birds, however, will likely get ill, with symptoms including coughing, swollen eyes, lethargy, and decreased food consumption and egg production, and may even die if they contract the virus.

“Avian Influenza usually spreads quickly through a flock and affects most birds in the group,” Hurwitz said. “This infection is concerning because of the losses it causes in infected flocks and because it is so contagious.”

Avian influenza is rare in the United States, but the case detected in eastern Canada is concerning for Maine as it is currently in the crossroads of this strain, said Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine Animal Health Laboratory. Migratory birds traveling through Maine from Canada could carry the pathogen, and the fact that Maine has so many small farms that allow free-ranging chickens could increase the potential for an avian flu outbreak.

“We’re very lucky and it’s wonderful here in Maine that a lot of times our backyard farms are isolated from other farms, [and chickens] can be allowed to free range … but it opens up the door to risk in that our birds can get exposed to wild birds,” Lichtenwalner said. “We’re free of it right now but that could change really fast.”

Even though Lichtenwalner said that Maine “did great” with the last North American avian flu outbreak in 2015, many chicken and turkey farms out in the Midwest weren’t so lucky. More than 43 million birds in 15 states were killed as a result of the outbreak.

“It’s not just the ill effects of the disease but also the very stringent quarantine and depopulation that is required by the USDA to stop it in its tracks,” Lichtenwalner said. “We don’t want to go there. There was a huge amount of economic damage and also of course it’s really hard on everybody, farmers and the public alike.”

The chances of a person catching avian influenza are small, but if they do, the virus can be deadly. Around half of human avian influenza cases are fatal, though under 1,000 cases worldwide have been recorded since the virus was discovered in the late ’90s.

Backyard poultry owners in Maine should be prepared to take a few steps now to prevent the virus from crossing into the state. Hurowitz said that if you own poultry, you should commit to learning about and implementing proper biosecurity measures on your farm, no matter the size of your flock. She said resources like the USDA’s Defend the Flock Resource Center are a great place for backyard farmers to start .

Part of those measures will include keeping poultry away from areas where wild waterfowl hang out to mitigate the risk of the birds contracting avian influenza, which can even survive in the manure that the birds leave behind, Lichtenwalner said. It might be best, too, to consider whether to actually free-range your backyard chickens (even though Lictenwalner said giving that piece of advice makes her “feel like a party pooper”).

It is also important to report any sudden respiratory illness or backyard poultry deaths to the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, the USDA, your flock veterinarian or the Cooperative Extension Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Maine as soon as possible to prevent avian influenza from taking root in Maine.

Lichtenwalner hopes that people will take lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic when approaching the potential threat of the avian influenza — namely, that “prevention is a lot better than a cure.”