As far as the Rusty Metal Farm chickens are concerned, as long as there is visible ground to walk on they can ignore the snowbanks still surrounding them. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

The recent outbreak of the H5N1 avian influenza in a small flock of backyard birds in Knox County has put the entire state on high alert as state and federal animal health officials work together to keep the deadly disease from spreading.

According to Maine’s top veterinarian, this is the first time the H5N1 virus has been confirmed in the state and should not be taken lightly.

“This is a foreign disease and extremely serious,” said Dr. Michele Walsh, state veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “There has never been a report of this highly pathogenic disease in Maine ever, to my knowledge.”

It’s of particular concern to backyard flocks and small homesteads, both of which have seen an increase in domestic poultry in the last several years.

H5N1 avian influenza is carried by flying wild waterfowl like ducks, geese and shorebirds. While it does not sicken wild fowl, it causes severe symptoms in domestic fowl including chickens, turkeys, ducks, pheasants, geese and guinea fowl.

Symptoms include swollen heads, blue coloration of combs and wattles, lack of appetite, respiratory distress and diarrhea with a significant drop in egg production. These symptoms are particularly severe in chickens and turkeys.

Keepers of small flocks have reason to be concerned and that is why Walsh said they should take every precaution to keep their birds safe.

“If people are owners of backyard chickens, turkeys or other domestic fowl they need to know the birds are all highly susceptible to this virus,” Walsh said. “If I were them I would do everything I can to limit the mixing of my birds and wild birds, particularly waterfowl.”

Since avian flu is easily transmitted from wild to domestic birds, this means removing all feeders for wild birds and confining domestic poultry to areas protected from wild bird contact.

It also means practicing good biosecurity: keeping disease and disease-causing pathogens away from your flock.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, or APHIS, provides information and resources to help people do everything possible to keep birds healthy and reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases. The two most important things are limiting human visitors and excluding wildlife.

Domestic poultry owners also need to be vigilant during the outbreak of avian flu. If there is any question about the health of an individual bird or entire flock, Walsh said it is crucial to report those cases to state officials by calling 1-866-536-7593.

“They need to make sure what is causing any mortality in their flock,” Walsh said. “We are asking them to report sick birds to this 24/7 hotline.”

Callers will be connected to a state animal health official who can talk about symptoms and arrange for assistance in dealing with the disease.

When H5N1 avian flu was confirmed in the Knox County flock, the property was placed under quarantine by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the birds were humanely euthanized.

The Maine DACF is also monitoring domestic flocks within a six-mile radius of the infected flock and is working with bird owners to keep their flocks safe.

When it comes to backyard bird keepers, Walsh said her agency is well aware these are more than food animals.

“People love their birds and will say they got them for their kids to raise or for the fresh eggs,” Walsh said. “Then they end up feeling they are pets like their dog or cat, but they need to know this is a really dangerous virus to have around.”

Avian flu was responsible for the death of more than 51 million domestic poultry birds in the United States during the last outbreak in 2014-2015.

According to Walsh, there is every reason to believe it can be controlled in Maine.

“If we respond appropriately we stand a chance of getting ahead of it,” she said.

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.