This year it is more important than ever to make sure new chicks are coming from clean, disease-free hatcheries. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

As more cases of H5N1 avian flu are confirmed in Maine, you must be vigilant when purchasing poultry chicks this season.

This is the time of year when people begin placing orders for or pick up batches of day-old chicks to add to their backyard flocks. Given how easily H5N1 can be inadvertently carried from one location to another, people need to follow a strict protocol.

Following these protocols, and confirming that the breeder you purchase your chicks from has the proper certification, can prevent you from experiencing an avian flu outbreak among your flock. Since it was first identified in a small flock in Knox County, the H5N1 avian influenza has led to the deaths of more than 600 birds in Maine, both from the virus itself and from euthanization of the remaining flock.

“Maine is at high risk for [avian influenza] and all sizes, types and experience levels of flock owners should include reviewing best practices and biosecurity information,” said Jim Britt, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, biosecurity is anything you do to keep diseases and disease-causing viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi and microorganisms away from your birds, property and people.

Specifically, the USDA recommends flock owners keep visitors at a minimum; washing your hands before and after coming in contact with live birds, provide disposable boot covers or disinfectant footbaths for anyone coming in contact with your flock, changing your clothes before entering and after leaving your flock area; and cleaning and disinfecting any tools used with your birds.

For people planning to purchase chicks from a local farm, it’s important to first make sure that farm is practicing those biosecurity measures and that their flock is free of any signs of avian flu. That’s because it would be very easy to bring the disease into your flock along with new chicks if they are infected.

Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the veterinary diagnostic laboratory at the University of Maine, urges people to purchase chicks only from breeders and hatcheries that are certified by the National Poultry Improvement Plan. The certification means your flock has been tested for, and declared free of specific diseases. However, the standard testing to receive NPIP certification does not include avian flu. That NPIP certification testing is available upon request. 

All commercial hatcheries are required to carry this certification.

“Ask the source of chicks if the chicks are from an NPIP hatchet,” Lichtenwalner said. “And if it’s certified free of salmonella, avian flu and mycoplasma.”

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.

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 backyard poultry are being urged to take every precaution to prevent its spread and if they suspect the disease is present, report it to state animal health officials by calling 866-536-7593.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated National Poultry Improvement Plan certification automatically includes testing for avian flu. It does not.

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.