Flocks have continued to be infected with a deadly strain of avian influenza in Maine. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

The deadly avian flu has been identified for the first time in a backyard flock in Washington County.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service confirmed several birds from a backyard flock in Machiasport tested positive for the virus on March 26. Last month six cases were confirmed in wild ducks in Washington County.

This marks the northernmost confirmed case of the virus in a domestic flock since it was first reported in Maine earlier this year. The H5N1 avian influenza was first identified in a small flock in Knox County in February and has since led to the deaths of more than 600 birds, both from the virus itself and from euthanization of the remaining flock. Keepers of backyard poultry are being urged to take every precaution to prevent its spread.

The birds in Machiasport were part of a mixed flock owned by Stephanie Strongin, who on Thursday said her entire remaining flock of 14 egg-laying chickens had to be euthanized by state animal health professionals in the wake of the diagnosis.

Now she wants to get the word out so other people can prevent the disease in their own birds and not have to experience the trauma of losing beloved birds.

“It’s been heartbreaking,” Strongin said. “I have had birds forever and I want to spare anyone else from going through this.”

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Strongin said she reached out to officials after four of her chickens died within a week and a half of each other. Other than a reduced egg production, none of the birds were showing any symptoms of the virus, she said.

“Three birds passed away but they were older so I was a little alarmed,” Strongin said. “But when a younger bird died I wanted to find out what happened.”

Strongin sent the body of the younger bird to the diagnostic testing lab at the University of Maine which, in turn, sent samples to a laboratory in the midwest which confirmed the bird died from the H5N1 virus.

Strongin got the bad news this past Saturday and on Monday she said officials from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry were at her place to euthanize the rest of the flock.

She said the state officials were very kind and sensitive throughout the process of destroying the flock. They also took eggs laid by the chickens.

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Strongin said she was told to not go into the barn that housed the chickens for three weeks and she must wait 150 days before bringing any new birds onto her property.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services provides updates on newly identified cases in both backyard poultry and  wild birds. The department also provides information and resources to help people keep birds healthy and reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases. The two most important things are limiting human visitors and excluding wildlife.

H5N1 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.

Strongin said she lives on the Machias River and while she has not seen any wild waterfowl on her property, she says they are now flying over her house as they migrate north. She suspects droppings from one or more birds landed on her property and that’s how her chickens were infected.

“All it takes is one bird,” she said. “People need to know it is here and it’s a big deal.”

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.