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Usually, we’d be celebrating the return of migrating birds in the spring. They bring sounds and signs of brighter days ahead.
This year has been a little different. A very unwelcome addition has been tagging along on the journey: avian flu.
This highly contagious strain of virus has been confirmed in Maine for the first time ever. As of the beginning of the week, The deadly H5N1 avian flu has been found in five Maine counties and killed over 600 birds in Maine — either directly or because birds had to be euthanized.
The virus is carried by flying waterfowl and shorebirds. Without sickening wild fowl, it can spread quickly and kill domestic birds like chickens, turkeys, ducks, pheasants, geese and guinea fowl.
“There is little evidence to suggest that [avian flu] is being spread from farm to farm,” said Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry spokesperson Jim Britt. “Because [avian flu] is being spread by migrating wild birds, it is difficult to predict what will happen over the next couple of months.”
Predictions may be difficult, but there are clear recommendations — particularly for people with poultry.
“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.”
If you’re like us and you’re wondering what exactly “strong biosecurity” means, BDN reporter Julia Bayly already has you covered. She explained it back in late February when the avian flu was first detected in Maine.
“Biosecurity is doing everything you can to keep disease-causing pathogens and the animals that carry them away from your birds,” Bayly wrote at the time. “In practice, it includes making sure your coop and runs are protected and making sure human-bird interactions are limited and to avoid exposure to the disease.”
Bayly pointed to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) resources for updates on avian flu cases and how to help keep birds healthy. Suggestions from the agency include keeping visitors to a minimum, washing your hands before and after coming into contact with live birds, using disposable boot covers and disinfectant footbaths, cleaning and disinfecting tools and equipment, watching for illness and reporting sick birds.
The BDN also recently compiled a roundup of information about the avian flu in Maine, including the symptoms shown by a sick bird.
“Symptoms of a bird that has been sickened by the virus include swollen heads, blue coloration of combs and wattles, lack of appetite, respiratory distress and diarrhea with a significant drop in egg production,” according to that roundup. “These symptoms are particularly severe in chickens and turkeys.”
Though the H5N1 virus is highly transmissible, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider it to be low risk for the general public.
“No known human-to-human spread has occurred with the A(H5N1) virus that is currently circulating in birds in the United States and globally,” the CDC says about the current bird flu situation. “During past H5N1 bird flu virus outbreaks that have occurred in poultry globally, human infections were rare.”
The impact of this illness on domestic birds, as some Maine poultry owners have already found out, is significant.
“It’s been heartbreaking,” backyard flock owner Stephanie Strongin of Machiasport said after all of her 18 birds were killed after infection struck in March. “I have had birds forever and I want to spare anyone else from going through this.”
To try to prevent more heartbreak, owners should be aware of the high risks right now and follow the recommendations to help keep their birds healthy.