Migrator waterfowl like ducks have been identified as the primary cause of the spread of avian flu in Maine. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

With migratory bird season ramping up, poultry owners are being warned to keep their birds indoors to help prevent the continued spread of the deadly H5N1 avian flu.

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.

On Thursday, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry ranked the risk of wild birds being infected with avian flu as high.

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The spread of the deadly H5N1 avian flu that has been found in five counties in the state is being blamed on wild birds, primarily water fowl, and not people inadvertently carrying it between farms or homesteads. To date, avian flu has resulted in the death or humane euthanization of more than 600 birds in Maine.

“There is little evidence to suggest that [avian flu] is being spread from farm to farm,” said Jim Britt, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “Because [avian flu] is being spread by migrating wild birds, it is difficult to predict what will happen over the next couple of months.”

But according to a state wildlife expert, with migratory birds comes avian flu.

“We have a significant number of [migratory] birds that come through the state,” said Kelsey Sullivan, wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife bird group. “With more migration and birds moving through in higher concentrations [avian flu] could potentially spread and cases might increase.”

“We are definitely a stop-over state for some species like black ducks and wood ducks coming through,” Sullivan said. “We are at the front end of the migration season with birds starting to arrive.”

The migratory season should peak in the middle of this month and then things start slowing down in May, Sullivan said.

“The trends observed with past North American [avian flu] outbreaks are that we often see a reprieve in the summer months,” Britt said. “Migratory waterfowl — ducks, geese and shorebirds —  moving south in the fall months are likely to shed the virus again.”

That means even if the outbreaks of avian flu slow or stop during the summer, people still need to prepare for an uptick in the fall.

“It is critically important that poultry owners work now to provide indoor shelter for their birds through the fall and provide outdoor access only in covered poultry runs, allowing protection from predators and preventing contact with wild waterfowl and their droppings,” Britt said. “The virus is very prevalent in the environment in wild birds, so flock owners need to practice strong biosecurity.”

As the migratory season starts, there are thousands of birds flying over or stopping in Maine, according to Maine Audubon naturalist Doug Hitchcox.

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“Keep in mind songbirds are also migrating,” Hitchcox said. “The type of feeders that people use typically don’t attract the type of birds affected by avian flu.”

But Hitcox said people should still take care and practice good personal hygiene when handling their bird feeders.

“We are saying if you are concerned, especially if you have ducks or geese under your feeders, be cautious when handling, cleaning and filling those feeders,” Hitchcox said.

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.

Hitchox said people can see the migration of birds in real time online over Maine at BirdCast.

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Julia Bayly

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.