Transmitted to backyard flocks by migrating wild birds
Avian flu has been confirmed in a backyard flock of birds in Okanogan County, bringing the total number of infected flocks in the state to eight.
The infections in Okanogan County were confirmed on May 12, along with another infected flock in Whatcom County. The flock owners had contacted the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s (WSDA) sick-bird hotline to report an unusual number of sudden deaths among their birds.
The infection in Okanogan County was in a small, mixed backyard flock. The flocks have been quarantined and the birds that have not already succumbed to the virus will be euthanized, according to WSDA.
Avian influenza (bird flu) is highly contagious and can be transmitted from wild birds to domestic chickens, ducks and geese. It’s rare for avian flu to affect just one or two birds in a flock, according to WSDA.
The flu is fatal to domestic chickens. If one bird gets sick, it’s highly likely the whole flock will become ill, WSDA media relations coordinator Amber Betts said.
If you have questions about bird flu or find multiple dead birds, call WSDA at 1-800-606-3056. You can save a carcass by double-bagging it and keeping it in a cooler with ice for WSDA to pick up.
WSDA information: agr.wa.gov/birdflu. They also have a Facebook page for Washington Bird Flu Updates 2022.
U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Defend the Flock” program has more information about bird flu and how to protect flocks.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: report sightings of sick or dead wild birds at bit.ly/sickwildbirds.
Informative videos and Q&A with state veterinarian Amber Itle are on YouTube.
To protect privacy, WSDA is not providing detailed geographic or other information about cases, but the agency’s map shows the infection zone in the Omak vicinity. WSDA is notifying flock owners within a 10-kilometer radius of any confirmed cases, Betts said.
The first cases of avian influenza in Washington this year were detected on May 5 in Pacific County. Since then, cases have been confirmed in Spokane, Pierce and Clallam counties, and most recently in Okanogan and Whatcom.
The dominant sign of bird flu is multiple sudden deaths in a flock — for example, the deaths of a quarter or half of a flock within days or hours. If only one or two birds die in a week, it could be another problem, Betts said.
Infected birds may show respiratory symptoms and goopy eyes, discolored legs and ruffled feathers. Some — particularly waterfowl — exhibit neurological signs, such as shaking their head or not moving. Another indication of infection is birds — especially wild birds — that are completely unafraid of humans, Betts said. Both wild and domestic waterfowl can be infected with the virus and not show signs of disease.
Avian flu starts in wild birds but is easily transmitted to domestic flocks through fecal matter, through the air, and through shared water sources. People and animals can also spread it by tracking fecal or other contaminated matter from one farm to another, Betts said.
Veterinarians have been watching bird flu since last fall, when the disease was spreading in Europe. Since then, the flu followed migratory routes and turned up in the spring on the east coast of the United States. Migrating birds carrying the disease have now arrived on the west coast, Betts said.
The fact that bird flu has been confirmed in non-contiguous counties across Washington underscores the fact that it’s being transmitted along the flyway by wild birds, Betts said.
The bird flu virus is very persistent in cool and damp weather, but tends not to thrive in hot weather. WSDA anticipates that with warmer, drier weather, the outbreak should be controlled by July, Betts said.
Washington last saw a significant spread of avian flu in 2015, but that outbreak was more limited. This year, veterinarians have identified more than 40 species of wild birds that have been infected. The 2015 outbreak was spread primarily by inadequate biosecurity, such as tracking contaminated matter on shoes or clothing from one flock to another, Betts said.
This year, because of the high transmission rate from wild birds to domestic flocks, WSDA is encouraging flock owners to be scrupulous about biosecurity. People should change their shoes and clothes before they leave the farm and shouldn’t share tools or invite visitors to their farm. They should provide domestic birds their own water source and prevent them from being able to access ponds or puddles used by wild birds.
“If flock owners could remain diligent for just a few weeks until the waterfowl complete their migration north, we should be able to get through the worst of it,” State Veterinarian Amber Itle said.
“With so many confirmed cases in domestic flocks and wild birds, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to avoid commingling of poultry or moving them off of your farm,” she said.
There is little risk of transmission to humans or other animals. But people should keep dogs and other animals away from birds because the animals can track contaminated matter to other birds, Betts said.
There is no risk to humans from eating properly cooked eggs and meat. But people should not give eggs to neighbors until the outbreak is under control, Betts said.
When investigating possible infections, veterinary specialists send samples to a state and national lab. The disease isn’t confirmed until they get results from the national lab. If bird flu is confirmed, the protocol is to euthanize the entire flock to keep it from spreading further. WSDA does a thorough investigation before taking any action, Betts said.