Backyard poultry owners in Whatcom County urged to get their flocks tested for 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.
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

State agriculture officials are mailing about 25,000 postcards to Whatcom County poultry owners Friday, Jan. 16, urging them to allow their birds to be tested for avian flu.

“Whatcom County residents should begin seeing these cards hit their mailboxes in a few days,” said Hector Castro, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

The voluntary testing of domesticated birds is meant to prevent highly pathogenic bird flu from taking hold in the county and spreading.

Highly pathogenic means the strain is deadly to domestic chickens and turkeys.

Testing was stepped up here after Canadian inspectors first confirmed the highly pathogenic H5N2 strain at two British Columbia poultry farms in the first week of December and subsequent sampling found the flu in wild ducks in Whatcom County. No new cases have been found in Whatcom County since then, although test results are pending.

Officials said the current strains aren’t dangerous to people and stress they haven’t been found in commercial poultry farms anywhere in the state or the U.S.

Still, Rock Creek Farms on Everson-Goshen Road had to euthanize more than 20,000 chicks Jan. 9, because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency banned the import of poultry and poultry products from Washington state when the flu was found in backyard flocks in the Tri-Cities area in Benton County.

Harvey Pelleboer, the farm’s manager, said the chicks had to be killed because there was no place to keep them.

The hatchery produces 80,000 to 120,000 birds a week, exclusively for a business in British Columbia, which it ships to twice a week.

“If we don’t have a place for them we end up having to euthanize them,” Pelleboer said.

But the farm has been able to ship to B.C. once again thanks to help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“While Canada initially restricted poultry from the entire state of Washington, they have now limited their restrictions to the control zone (parts of Benton and Franklin counties, as determined by Washington state). The hatchery can now ship chicks to Canada,” said Joelle Hayden, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in an email.

That was good news for Pelleboer.

“They’ve been helping us every step of the way,” he said of the USDA. “It’s a bunch more hoops we have to go through, but we are now able to export into B.C.”

The discovery of bird flu in the backyard flocks in Benton County prompted officials to set up a quarantine zone there.

Federal and state agriculture officials have visited 728 sites within the quarantine zone nearest the two originally infected sites in Benton County, according to Castro.

“The team has taken samples from birds at 66 locations. So far, all of the samples submitted for testing have come back negative for avian influenza,” he said in an email.

As for the earlier cases found in wild birds in Whatcom County: One was a northern pintail duck, which died because of aspergillosis, a fungal disease that birds can contract from eating moldy grain in fields and farm yards. But the duck also carried a strain of bird flu similar to the one that caused the outbreak in B.C.

The other case here was a captive gyrfalcon used for hunting and fed a wild widgeon, a type of duck, by its owner. Testing showed an H5N8 strain of the virus in the gyrfalcon. The bird was one of four captive gyrfalcons fed the widgeon. All died after, but just one was tested.

Wild birds, specifically waterfowl, carry the flu but don’t show symptoms.

Both the wild pintail and widgeon were traced to the Wiser Lake area.

People can have their birds tested by calling 800-606-3056. It’s also the number to report domestic birds that are sick or dead.

Learn more by emailing ahealth@agr.wa.gov or calling the Avian Health hotline at 800-606-3056.