A bald eagle infected with bird flu has been discovered in British Columbia amid an outbreak that has affected growers in the eastern United States, forcing the culling of millions of birds.
Backyard hobbyists should be aware of the potential threat of bird flu to flocks. (The Zaitz/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
A highly contagious and deadly strain of bird flu has been detected in a bald eagle in British Columbia, posing a potential threat to hundreds if not thousands of backyard flocks in Oregon, as well as large commercial farms with millions of birds.
The strain is the same one that caused an outbreak in late 2014 and early 2015, forcing the destruction of millions of birds.
The virus poses little risk to humans. Infections in humans are rare and are associated with close, prolonged, and unprotected contact with infected birds or contaminated surfaces.
But chickens, in particular, are very susceptible to infection.
“It’s worrisome for backyard herds,” said Kurt Williams, director of the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Oregon State University. “There is no doubt about it.”
It also poses a risk to business operations.
“It’s a virus and wild birds have a way of getting into business operations as well,” Williams said.
In Oregon, the poultry industry is worth $15.8 million, according to the state agriculture department. It is anchored by five business operations, four of which focus on eggs and one that sells broiler chickens. About forty farms work with these producers.
An outbreak of bird flu in these flocks would be devastating. To contain it, producers destroy their herds.
“They don’t mess around with controlling this pathogen,” Williams said.
Infected chickens can develop respiratory problems or diarrhea, but Williams said hobbyists — and commercial growers — are more likely to find a group of dead birds before noticing any symptoms.
The eagle’s discovery comes at a time when food prices are rising due to supply chain issues, soaring fuel prices and the war in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are major producers of wheat and corn. It also coincides with an outbreak of bird flu in the eastern half of the United States.
Since February, the virus has forced the culling of nearly seven million birds in Wisconsin, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, Kentucky and Indiana.
The virus has also been found in wild birds in Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee, according to the University of Minnesota. New infections are announced every week.
The virus is thought to be spread by migrating birds.
“Many migratory birds that use summering and breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere migrate from more southerly locations to their northern range to track food availability and reach their breeding grounds,” said Dana Sanchez, wildlife scientist at Oregon State University. “If they catch a pathogen, they get up the next day and continue their journey.”
The main concern is wild ducks and geese interacting with domestic poultry, Sanchez said.
The last major outbreak in the United States was in late 2014 and early 2015. The first detection was in December 2014 in a backyard flock in Winston, south of Roseburg. Within months, the virus spread across the country, resulting in the death or destruction of nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys nationwide. They accounted for 12% of the country’s laying hens and 8% of the turkeys raised for meat.
The outbreak has pushed up poultry and egg prices while dozens of countries have banned US poultry imports.
In recent weeks, China, Korea and Mexico, one of the largest export markets for the United States, have restricted poultry imports from certain states.
On Wednesday, the state Department of Agriculture issued a public warning about the bald eagle and urged growers to be vigilant.
In an email to the Capital Chronicle, agency officials said growers — and backyard hobbyists — must practice biosecurity. This includes limiting visitors, wearing protective clothing, using disposable shoe covers, washing hands before and after touching poultry, and disinfecting equipment.
Williams acknowledged that fanciers aren’t likely to wear slippers or change clothes when rounding up chickens in a field, for example. But he said they should keep wild birds away from their flocks as much as possible.
Any unusual bird deaths should be reported to the US Department of Agriculture at 866-536-7593.
“The best protection for birds are owners who practice effective biosecurity,” said Ryan Scholz, the state veterinarian. “We need to be vigilant and strict with our biosecurity practices, especially for backyard flocks, as well as knowing when and how to report potential bird flu deaths.”
He added, “Our preparation could reduce the risk of infection in poultry and prevent or limit the impact of the introduction of HPAI into Oregon.”
HPAI is the highly contagious strain of bird flu.
If there is a generalized epidemic, pathology experts from the OSU laboratory will be involved.
“It’ll be on our radar and we’ll see to it,” Williams said.
State Department of Agriculture officials said that in the event of an outbreak, they would work with federal authorities and poultry producers to dispose of infected birds and cull the birds. Disposal sites vary depending on herd size and local conditions, the department said in an email.
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