Apr. 4—State officials are urging owners of backyard flocks and commercial chicken operations to keep their birds indoors to protect against highly infectious strains of avian flu that are spreading throughout Maine.
Strains of the virus have led the U.S. poultry industry to euthanize more than 15.6 million chickens and 1.3 million turkeys since Jan. 1. In Maine, there were a total of 658 confirmed cases of the disease in farm and backyard flocks between Feb. 19 and March 30, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Those cases were detected in 11 locations in York, Cumberland, Lincoln, Knox and Washington counties.
While the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is warning that the risk to poultry in Maine is high, the strains circulating are considered a low risk to public health. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that no human cases have been detected in Maine or anywhere else in the United States.
Prince Well Farm in North Yarmouth has lost 247 birds to the disease. Hannah Eustis, who owns the farm with her husband, Josh, said they went to their coop on the morning of March 20 and noticed that about 15 chickens had died. They checked out the others and saw that several had swollen faces and purple, discolored combs, and some birds were hunched over.
The couple called the USDA's sick bird hotline, and a state veterinarian came out the next day to take swabs from the deceased birds. By the time the veterinarians returned a couple of days later with news that the flock was infected with avian flu, 50 chickens had already died.
The state veterinarians let them know that the farm would need to be quarantined and all their birds euthanized. Aside from chickens, the Eustises had geese, turkeys and ducks on the farm.
Hannah Eustis said in a Facebook post that the ordeal was "absolutely heartbreaking," and she urged other flock owners to monitor their chickens and keep wild waterfowl away.
"This virus is absolutely terrifying as you can literally bring it home on your shoe," she wrote.
BIRDS UNDER HIGH THREAT
Each migratory season, the state agriculture department warns about protecting backyard and commercial flocks from various strains of avian flu that can be spread from wild birds through contact with nasal or eye secretion or their droppings, sharing a water source or food, and even sharing space.
The USDA recommends a number of biosecurity measures against avian flu for flock owners, such as covering their coops and runs, setting up a perimeter buffer area and sweeping away old nests before each nesting season, and it advises against "kissing and snuggling" poultry.
Strains of avian flu are defined by the combination of two groups of proteins, H proteins and N proteins, and by how infectious they are. No highly pathogenic strains had been detected in the U.S. since 2016, but in January, the first U.S. case was confirmed in a wild bird, a wigeon, in South Carolina, carrying a Eurasian H5 strain of the virus.
On Feb. 23, six wild ducks were found in Maine's Washington County with the disease, four with Eurasian H5 and two with Eurasian H5N1, according to the USDA.
Highly pathogenic strains can cause sudden death in poultry before they develop symptoms, or chickens may show symptoms including lack of energy and appetite, lack of coordination, diarrhea, decreased egg production or soft-shelled or misshapen eggs, swollen and discolored legs, wattles, combs or hocks, and nasal discharge, coughing and sneezing, according to the state agriculture department.
While Asian H5N1 viruses have been responsible for most human illness and deaths from bird flu viruses worldwide in the past, the federal CDC announced March 7 that the risk to the general public from the current H5N1 bird flu strains is low.
The agency said these strains lack the changes seen in earlier ones that allowed them to infect people more easily and cause severe illnesses in humans. Only one person, a bird owner in the United Kingdom, has been infected with a current strain and has showed no symptoms. The CDC continues to monitor the viruses for any changes that might increase their threat to humans.
Eustis said she suspects ducks were the catalyst for spreading the disease on the farm, because they can carry the virus without it affecting them.
"Every once in a while we get a couple of wild ducks coming, and my husband noticed they were in with our ducks," she said. "We have a big enclosure for them, and they were able to fly in. Unbeknownst to us, they were actually mingling with our ducks."
FARMS WARNED TO TAKE ACTION
When a backyard or commercial flock is found to be infected, state animal health officials humanely euthanize the birds on the property, put the property under quarantine, monitor properties with flocks within a 10-kilometer radius and educate those property owners about protective measures they should take.
Eustis said she is happy with how the state officials handled everything and that the couple "couldn't have asked for a better team of people."
Under the quarantine, the Eustises must limit unnecessary visitors to the farm, and they are not permitted to have poultry on the property for 150 days. That will give the sun's ultraviolet rays time to kill the virus on the ground.
For backyard flock owners, that's the recommended way to disinfect the property. Commercial owners with concrete facilities have other options for disinfecting.
To be on the safe side, the Eustises do not plan to start another flock until at least next year. Hannah Eustis said they will probably not have ducks again because they seem to attract wild ducks. The couple would also build a cover for their coop and run, and they urged other flock owners to do the same.
"Even when the wild ducks fly over, they don't even have to come into your pen," she said. "If they poop and it lands in the run, and the chickens scratch at it, then they will get it because that is also a way they infect."
For the time being, the Eustises are focusing on the other animals on their farm — they breed Nigerian Dwarf goats and purebred Holland Lop rabbits — and trying to put the ordeal behind them. But Eustis said she does look forward to raising chickens again and is considering branching out to new breeds such as the flashy Polish breed of crested chickens.
Agriculture department spokesperson Jim Britt said the trend in past outbreaks has been that there was a reprieve in the summer months, when the virus left on the landscape by migrating birds is degraded by sunlight and heat. However, he said ducks, geese and shorebirds migrating through the state this fall are likely to shed the virus again.
"It is critically important that poultry owners work now to provide indoor shelter for their birds through the fall and provide outdoor access only in covered poultry runs, allowing protection from predators and preventing contact with wild waterfowl and their droppings," he said.
To report sick birds, call the USDA sick bird hotline at 866-536-7593.