Recent press coverage has many Alabamians concerned about avian influenza and how it could impact backyard birds and poultry flocks. Some have said that bird feeders across the state should be removed until the outbreak has subsided. In fact, that is the guidance from other state agencies and university groups such as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota Raptor Center. However, these recommendations from the upper Midwest do not necessarily apply to the situation here in Alabama.
What is avian influenza?
Avian influenza–sometimes called bird flu–is caused by a group of viruses known as avian influenza A viruses. There are several of these viruses that normally circulate in waterfowl (ducks and geese) and shorebird (gulls and terns) populations that are not a concern to those birds or other bird populations. However, some strains of the virus may cause the waterfowl and shorebirds to become ill.
There are two strains of concern. These are the ones that contain the hemagglutinin (H) of H5 or H7. Influenza viruses that have either of these two H types can be further classified as either low pathogenicity avian influenza (LPAI) or highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) viruses. This designation does not apply to severity of illness in people or most birds, but, rather, how severe the disease is in poultry (chickens and ducks).
A concern with these viruses is that they can convert from LPAI to HPAI and, of course, the opposite (HPAI to LPAI). As a result, whenever it is detected in poultry, measures are put into place to protect other poultry. The measure is euthanasia of the entire flock and the creation of a surveillance zone around the infected location. Birds in the surveillance zone are monitored to make sure they do not catch the disease. This is performed to eliminate the spread to uninfected birds. Other bird species may be impacted. However, the chance is low, unless they come into contact with infected birds. These can include raptors (eagles, hawks, owls, vultures, and others), which become infected after ingesting a dead or sick bird. The impacts on songbirds are not well understood, mainly because these birds typically do not reside in the same habitats as waterfowl or shorebirds.
The current outbreak is being caused by a HPAI (H5N1) virus that had previously been observed circulating in waterfowl populations in Eurasia for several years. Since January 2022 and through July 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the USDA have recorded over 40 million birds in the United States infected with this virus, the majority of which are poultry. To date, avian influenza has been detected in 1805 wild birds. The majority of those birds are waterfowl or raptors. Many confirmed cases for both domestic and wild birds have been from the Upper Midwest.
Current Situation in Alabama
As of July 11, 2022, a single case of the HPAI A(H5N1) virus has been confirmed in Alabama. On February 23, a hunter-killed duck known as an American wigeon from Limestone County tested positive for the virus as part of normal surveillance for this virus. However, since then the virus has not been detected in Alabama.
Since the outbreak in other parts of the United States, no cases of HPAI in domestic poultry have been documented in Alabama or surrounding states. This applies to both backyard and commercial operations. Regardless, Alabama poultry producers (both backyard and commercial) have increased biosecurity measures as a precaution and will continue until the outbreaks elsewhere in the country subside.
As of April 21, 2022, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has issued no official guidance to take down backyard bird feeders. Certainly, it is fine to take down bird feeders out of precaution if so inclined, but that measure is not currently being called for in Alabama. There are steps everyone can take to reduce the probability for transmission of avian influenza and other avian diseases.
Bird feeders. In most situations, bird feeders can remain up. In instances where waterfowl congregate around bird feeders, it is best to remove them until outbreaks in other parts of the country have subsided.
Sanitation. Keep bird feeders and the surrounding area clean. Take the following three steps to reduce disease transmission:
- Clean feeders frequently. Feeders should be cleaned at least once weekly. The best practice is to soak the entire feeder in a 10% bleach solution (one part bleach mixed with nine parts water) for at least 10 minutes. Prior to doing so, any stuck-on seeds or dirt should be scrubbed off. Allow the bird feeder to air dry completely before filling and putting it back out.
- Clean up below the feeders. Remove droppings and fallen feed underneath the bird feeder by shoveling or raking. Wet and moldy feed, in general, is a health risk to birds. Dispose of this waste in the garbage.
- Consider additional feeders. Providing multiple locations for birds to feed can reduce close contact with each other and reduce disease spread.
Backyard poultry. If backyard poultry are being raised, it is recommended that bird feeders are removed for the time being. In general, good biosecurity dictates that bird feeders should not be near poultry not just because of avian influenza, but other disease concerns, as well. Wild birds can spread diseases such as mycoplasma, infectious bronchitis, Salmonella, and other diseases to poultry and vice versa.
Sick birds. Do not touch any sick or dead birds with bare hands. Although avian influenza only infects people on rare occasions, it is still a possibility. Birds also carry other diseases that are transmitted to people. Instead, use disposable gloves or a shovel to move them. If sick or dead birds are observed and no obvious cause is seen, consider reporting them to ADCNR by calling 334-242-3469.
Note. The situation can change, and if it does, updated information will be provided.
For additional information from Alabama Cooperative Extension System about this topic, see the following resources:
- Poultry Biosecurity Measures Imperative During Avian Influenza Outbreaks
- Biosecurity for Backyard Poultry Flocks
- Protecting Backyard Flocks
The CDC and USDA regularly update cases of avian influenza. Monitor the links below to stay up-to-date on the situation.