I was recently asked if, “backyard chickens spread disease?” The simple answer is, not really. Disease usually comes to them and they contract it. More specifically, wild birds bring in bugs, like lice and mites. Even more threatening, wild waterfowl are carriers of Avian Influenza – which is highly transferable to backyard flocks.

Five states, located in the Pacific Flyway (where wild waterfowl migrate) have had incidences of waterfowl and/or backyard chickens testing positive for Avian Influenza. Those states include, California, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Idaho. The other states in the Flyway, that could be affected are, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.

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In Idaho, the Department of Agriculture recently confirmed the H5N2 strain of the Avian Influenza virus in three falcons from a private, non-commercial flock outside of Boise. The falcons were exposed to the virus after contact with a wild duck. Additionally, a small backyard poultry flock in in the same area was identified as having hens positive for H5N2. That flock was immediately put under quarantine and the birds were depopulated (a nicer word for “destroyed”). Ultimately, the state quarantined a six square mile area in two counties until the threat passed and no new cases arose.

The bottom line is: if you free range your chickens and migratory waterfowl have access to your property/yard, your flock is at risk for Avian Flu. “If backyard hen keepers would take steps to prevent wild ducks from intermingling with domesticated backyard chickens, it would significantly decrease the spread of the avian flu among backyard flocks,” said Dr. Bill Barton, Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Wild waterfowl – specifically ducks – are vectors (meaning they carry the virus, but don’t succumb to it) and pass along the virus. They do this through their droppings and their secretions (eyes, nose and mouth).

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Flocks that free-range in areas where migratory waterfowl have access are at highest risk. Cautious backyard chicken keepers should construct some sort of barrier between backyard flocks and wild duck populations. Also, if you live in an area where wild ducks gather, such as along neighborhood walking paths or in neighborhood ponds, practice biosecurity measures with your walking shoes. If you’ve walked where ducks have walked, don’t tread where your hens tread. I keep a pair of Ladybug® garden clogs (found in all sorts of fun colors at D&B Supply) by the back door. Those clogs only go out to the coop and back to the house – that’s it. The risk is too great to do otherwise. Also, it’s absolutely necessary to practice thorough hand sanitation when handling backyard flocks.

Fortunately, at this writing, there have been no human illnesses associated with the H5N2 viral strain of Avian Influenza anywhere in the world. The outbreak doesn’t pose risks to humans practicing sound hygiene.

For your flock’s sake, KNOW THE SYMPTOMS: According to the Department of Agriculture, symptoms of bird flu include, but are not limited to: coughing, sneezing, respiratory distress, decreased egg production, swelling of the head, comb and wattles, and sudden death. For more information on the H5N2 virus contact your state Department of Agriculture.

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