Whatcom County poultry owners encouraged to have birds tested for flu

Whatcom County residents with backyard flocks are being encouraged to have their birds tested as state and federal agencies work to stop the spread of bird flu.
Whatcom County residents with backyard flocks are being encouraged to have their birds tested as state and federal agencies work to stop the spread of bird flu. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Whatcom County residents with backyard flocks are being encouraged to have their birds tested as state and federal agencies work to stop the spread of bird flu, which likely has infected a second flock in Benton County in the Tri-Cities area.

“The sooner we can find out if there’s a problem, the sooner we can contain it,” said Hector Castro, spokesman for the Washington state Department of Agriculture, on Tuesday, Jan. 6.

No additional cases have been confirmed in Whatcom County since two strains were found here in December and traced to wild birds in the Wiser Lake area three miles southwest of Lynden. But additional test results are pending.

Tests identified the H5N2 virus in a wild northern pintail duck and H5N8 in a captive gyrfalcon fed what was believed to be a wild widgeon killed by a hunter, officials said then. Both strains have been described as highly pathogenic, meaning they can be deadly to domestic poultry.

Wild birds are carriers of the flu, though most strains don’t seriously affect them.

A strain similar to the H5N2 virus found in the wild northern pintail duck in Whatcom County infected the first flock near Benton City in Benton County. That infection was confirmed New Year’s Eve.

The second flock was exposed after domestic ducks were transferred from the first site, according to Castro. The two flocks were about 9 miles apart in Benton County.

The first flock had about 150 birds, including domestic waterfowl, with access to the outdoors. There also is a pond on the premises used by migratory birds.

“It’s been a concern all along that this is something that could be carried along the migratory pathways,” Castro said. “It is vital that bird owners protect their domestic birds from contact with wild waterfowl.”

The owner of the first flock contacted officials after nearly 50 birds died.

Birds in the second flock, which totaled about 500, also were a mix of chickens, ducks and turkeys. They started dying this past weekend. Tests haven’t yet confirmed bird flu in the second flock but the connection to the first flock was clear, Castro said.

Both flocks are being killed in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease, and their owners are cooperating, he said.

“They said they recognized the need to try and control the disease,” Castro said. “It’s tough. There’s no getting around it.”

The owners will be financially compensated through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

Officials once again stressed that the strains don’t pose an immediate health concern for the public because they have been found elsewhere in the world and have yet to infect humans.

“This is more of an issue for the poultry industry and anyone who owns birds,” Castro said.

The virus hasn’t been found in commercial poultry in the U.S. or Washington state, the USDA stressed.

Properly cooked waterfowl and domestic poultry do not sicken people. Eggs also are safe to eat, officials said.

As for the owners of backyard flocks in Whatcom County, postcards will be sent to some of them asking them to voluntarily allow their birds to be tested for the flu.

Castro didn’t immediately know how many birds from backyard flocks have been tested in Whatcom County since officials reached out to backyard bird owners at a town hall meeting in Lynden in December.

“It’s not as many as we’d like to do. We’d like to do more testing, which is why we’re trying to get the word out. It is voluntary,” he said.

Officials also want to hear from people who own waterfowl as part of their flocks.

For those poultry enthusiasts who hesitate to contact state agriculture officials because they fear one test could be the death knell for their flocks, Castro said: “There are almost always other signs and it’s just never about a single test. These viruses make birds sick and then they die.”

He said officials would work closely with bird owners. “We understand how traumatic this can be and how upsetting this can be.”

Meanwhile, officials said that people can take precautions that include:

• Avoid contact with sick or dead poultry or any wildlife.

• When there’s contact, wash hands with soap and water and change clothes before touching healthy domestic poultry or birds.

• Protect your backyard flock by keeping it away from other domestic poultry, wildlife and wild waterfowl.

Birds affected by avian influenza can show symptoms that include:

• a drop in food consumption.

• huddling and closed eyes.

• coughing and sneezing.

• lowered egg production.

• greenish diarrhea.

• excessive thirst.

• swollen wattles and combs.

• sudden death.

Learn more at healthybirds.aphis.usda.gov.

Illness in domestic birds should be reported to the Department of Agriculture’s Avian Health Program at 1-800-606-3056. People with backyard flocks who want them tested also can call this number to do so.

Sick or dead wild birds should be reported to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife at 1-800-606-8768.