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How backyard chicken owners are protecting their flocks from the deadly avian flu outbreak

Niven Sabherwal
90.5 WESA

A deadly flu virus has been spreading in birds across the U.S. As of last week, Pennsylvaniahad the second highest number of affected birds in the country, after Iowa. A Lancaster County poultry farm killed more than a million birds earlier this month to keep the virus from spreading further, with more than 100 farms within a six-mile radius under quarantine.

Although the avian flu poses low risks to the public, and there have been few cases among backyard chickens, owners in the region are still concerned. They are trying to protect their birds — which they see as pets — from getting infected.

Allison Sanka, a financial counselor and small business coach in Chester County, keeps five hens at home. She said both she and other people she knows who have chickens have been nervous about the flu sincea wild bald eagle died from an infection in the county last month.

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Normally, she would let her hens free range in her yard under her supervision, so that they can dig for worms. But since hearing about the spread of avian flu, Sanka has not let her chickens outside their coop and fenced-in run.

“They are not happy about it,” she said. “They will yell and cluck very loudly at the door and try and call us. It seems ridiculous, but they know that if they make a lot of noise, that generally we’ll go out there.”

“Every time we open the door, they try to escape … we have a couple that are very sneaky and that can try and get by us very quickly and get out, and we’ve had to run and catch them.”

Catching a running chicken is very difficult — as Rocky Balboafamously found out when he chased one as a workout.

Sanka has boots that she only wears in the chicken area, and cleans them off with bleach and water, so she doesn’t accidentally introduce the virus, which can spread through the droppings of infected birds. She used to bring her chickens weeds from the garden to peck on, but lately, she’s only been giving them lettuce from the grocery store or food scraps to snack on.

She’s also been watching for any signs of respiratory infections in her chickens, like coughing, wheezing, or bubbles in their eyes.

Right now, there is no treatment for infected birds, said Heather DiGiacomo, a small animal veterinarian at Newtown Square Veterinary Hospital in Delaware County, and also a chicken owner. She sees some chickens in her practice, and owners have been asking her about how to protect their birds from the virus.

If chicken owners see any problems with their birds, they should call the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Animal Health & Diagnostic Services at (717) 772-2852 to see if their birds should be tested, said Patty Dunn, clinical professor at the Animal Diagnostic Lab at Penn State. She said scientists can come to them and swab a chicken to test for the flu virus at one of three labs in Pennsylvania.

She said backyard chicken owners should keep an eye on their birds for signs of illness, and keep them separate from other birds, wild or domestic.

“I’ve worked in this discipline for over 30 years, and probably 20 percent of my job over the last 30 some years has been testing for avian influenza,” Dunn said.

The last outbreak of bird flu in the U.S. was in2014 and 2015, but that was not as widespread as this outbreak, said Bryan Richards, emerging disease coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center. Richards said he and his colleagues, along with partners at other federal agencies and tribal nations, have been tracking this avian flu sincethe first case in Canada late last year. He said he’s concerned as a backyard chicken owner himself, with 13 hens at home.

In 2015, there were about 100 wild birds affected in the U.S. and Canada; this time, there are more than 700 so far, Richards said. Also, this time around there are more species affected, including migratory birds likeCanada geese.

There is a chance that as migratory birds move north, and disperse instead of gathering in large flocks, the virus would not spread as easily and burn out. That’s what happened with the 2015 outbreak, Richards said.

“We hope that … at least in the wild birds … we’ll start to see it wane as compared to over the last couple of months, and so the threat level in the environment should wane as well.”

However, this has not been the case in Europe, wherebirds have been dealing with this virus over the past two years. The virus did not go away during the summer, so Richards said he and his colleagues are watching to see what happens in North America.