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Western States Detect Bird Flu: How to Protect Your Flock

Father and kids feeding ducks 

When I testify at hearings on proposed backyard chicken ordinances, the opposition always brings up, as one of the arguments against hens, the notion that chickens spread disease. In the past, I’ve scoffed at this because they don’t spread disease—any more than any other animal.

Now, things have changed. And, it’s up to us, as thoughtful hen keepers, to do what we can to help abate the spread of Avian Influenza.


Five states, located in the Pacific Flyway (where wild waterfowl migrate) have had recent 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 have so far dodged this bullet are, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.

In my home state of 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 chickens positive for H5N2. That flock was immediately put under quarantine and the birds were depopulated. 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 their backyard chickens, it would significantly decrease the spread of the avian flu among domesticated 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) pass along the virus. They do this through their dropping and their secretions (eyes, nose and mouth).

Wild wood duck 

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. Don’t tread where your hens tread, if you’ve walked where ducks have walked. The risk is too great. Also, it’s absolutely necessary to practice thorough hand sanitation when handling backyard flocks.

Fortunately, at this writing, the outbreak doesn't pose risk to humans practicing sound hygiene. For your flock’s sake, KNOW THE SYMPTOMS: (including 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.

Ithaca Chickens Free Range 

Photo of wood duck by Bob Young

Pacific Flyway photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

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