Bird flu spreads: Authorities warn of increase in avian influenza in Washington
A flock of ducks at the Grant County Fair in August 2018 getting ready for the “Duck Race” attraction. The Washington State Department of Agriculture is asking people to keep domesticated ducks penned up for the next 30 days in order to limit or prevent the spread of avian influenza, which was first detected in Washington in early May.
Charles H. Featherstone/Basin Business Journal
OLYMPIA — As avian influenza continues to spread through backyard flocks across Washington, state agriculture officials are asking residents to delay live market poultry sales for the next 30 days in the hopes that warmer weather will bring an end to the outbreak.
“Please don’t sell sick birds,” Washington State Veterinarian Amber Itle advised bird owners who wanted to market their animals. “Separate water fowl from poultry, and keep birds in individual boxes.”
Itle, who spoke during an online press conference Thursday morning held by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, also advised bird sellers to keep accurate records about the birds they sell so in case an animal is later reported sick, WSDA investigators can properly trace where the infection came from. Itle said the state is doing all it can to ensure that the H5N1 virus that causes avian influenza doesn’t spread past backyard flocks to large poultry farms or major live poultry markets, which would be a “nightmare” that would inflict significant losses.
“We think temporarily suspending is the best way to go at this point,” she said.
It is one of several measures state agriculture officials have put forward in the last week since the virus was first detected in Washington state on May 5. Since then, it has been detected in nine backyard flocks in seven counties — Pacific, Spokane, Pierce, Clallam, Okanogan, Whatcom and Thurston — and is largely being spread by migrating waterfowl as they make their way north.
Symptoms of the disease in birds include decreased appetite or egg production, bluish comb, wattle or legs, discharge from the eyes or nasal openings, ruffled feathers, tilting head, lack of coordination, difficulty walking or sudden death. Itle said anyone seeing signs of sickness or sudden unexplained deaths among their domestic flocks should call the WSDA’s sick bird hotline at 800-606-3056.
“We’ve received over 65 sick bird calls, and our vets follow on every single call,” she said.
Avian influenza has been detected in 34 states, with Washington being one of the latest places where this strain of H5N1 has been confirmed, Itle said. The virus likely mutated as migrating birds overwintered in South America, she noted.
While one possible case reported by a Colorado man in early May who had extensive contact with birds is currently being investigated, Itle said the disease does not appear to pose significant risk to humans. However, the current strain of avian influenza is sweeping through migratory waterfowl and the birds that prey on them, with hawks, eagles and owls falling victim to the disease after eating the carcasses of dead geese and ducks.
“We’ve had 950 wild bird detections in 60 species,” Itle said. “So, many birds are carrying it.”
Both Itle and WSDA Field Veterinarian Dana Dobbs also advised people to bring in their bird feeders for the next 30 days or so to prevent the mingling of large numbers of different species of birds, to separate domestic waterfowl and poultry from each other, and to provide well or potable water for domestic birds instead or irrigation or pond water to reduce the risk of drinking water that a wild bird might have defecated in.
“Don’t take the risk of fecal contamination,” Dobbs said. “I’ve seen it more than once already.”
Itle said it is also important to keep domesticated birds penned up and enclosed in order to limit or prevent any contact with wild birds. In fact, Itle noted in one instance, a backyard chicken flock was infected after the birds befriended a pair of wild mallard ducks and allowed them to share their food, water and coop space.
Itle also said the disease poses little threat to songbirds, cats or dogs, though in the Midwest and East Coast it has been detected in wild mammals that scavenge – such as foxes and skunks. However, animals and humans carry the virus on their paws, claws or shoes, and anything eating the carcass of a dead bird can get infected as well.
“It looks like it can infect mammals,” she said. “Don’t let (your pets) eat dead things.”
Aside from the huge flocks of water birds migrating through Washington state, Itle said this year’s cold wet spring has provided the perfect environment for the H5N1 virus to spread and infect. The best treatment for the avian influenza outbreak would be warmer, drier weather, she explained.
“It’s not a tough virus, it can persist in a cold, wet environment, so the wet and cold is not helping. Let’s just pray that summer gets here soon and we can go back to normal,” Itle said.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at email@example.com.