SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Check your chicks and house your hens. That’s the advice from Dr. Mark Ernst, Illinois state veterinarian with the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
As neighboring states of Indiana, Iowa and Missouri cope with confirmed cases of bird flu, also known as HPAI, or highly pathogenic avian influenza, in commercial broiler chicken flocks, Ernst offered some advice for chicken keepers large and small, indoors and outdoors, in Illinois.
“They need to start thinking about their biosecurity and, if they have birds outside, if there is any way they can possibly bring them in to cut down on any potential exposure, it wouldn’t be a bad idea,” he said.
Ernst emphasized that with confirmed cases in neighboring states, chicken owners in Illinois need to step up their vigilance and monitor flocks for changes.
“It is next door. I would say that owners need to be vigilant. If any producer happens to see the birds’ water intake drop off or their feed intake drop off, that seems to be an early indicator that something is going on with the flock. It may be, in a backyard flock — or any flock for that matter, you may see some sudden death before you start seeing a lot of clinical signs. It can hit that fast,” he said.
Late winter and early spring is the time when bird flu typically makes an appearance in the Midwest, as birds start to migrate north.
“It seems like when the migrations start, we start seeing an increase in it. That is coupled with the type of weather we get this time of year, the damp, cloudy and cool days, as opposed to a warm, dry, sunny day. When days are warm, dry and sunny, that’s less conducive to the virus spreading around,” Ernst said.
The virus can be spread in multiple ways from wild birds to tame birds.
“It can be an airborne spread, spread through contact with droppings or close contact with birds. Certainly we saw flock to flock spread in 2015, when we had the last outbreak. We saw spread that had to have been airborne because there was no indication of direct contact between infected and non infected birds,” Ernst said.
With spring also being the time of year when people are buying baby chicks and ducks from farm stores or ordering baby poultry through the mail, Ernst said double-checking the source of those new birds is important.
“All of those birds that come in are supposed to originate from National Poultry Improvement Plan hatcheries and flocks. I would be really cautious if I was bringing in birds. The first thing I would do is to make sure the source is from one of those National Poultry Improvement Plan flocks. I know there are probably birds that go mail order that are sourced from flocks that do little to no testing for any diseases and I would certainly stay away from that,” he said.
Ernst said isolating new birds from established flocks can help protect both sets of birds.
“Whenever they bring in new birds, they should always isolate them for a period of time. They also have to be concerned, not just about avian influenza, but any other disease organism that may already be in the flock that could be a threat to the new birds, if the new birds have never been exposed to whatever that organism might be,” he said.
Once the virus gets into flocks of birds, it can be hard to stop even with a change to warmer, drier days.
“The problem is if it really gets going and you get it into a lot of birds and flocks, it will maintain itself even when the weather changes and the migratory patterns change. If it is already seeded down, then we’ve got a battle,” Ernst said.