What Does the Bird Flu Mean for Backyard Chickens and Songbirds?

A severe strain of avian influenza has been spreading across the country this spring, affecting certain types of birds more than others.

Birds can't seem to get a break. Last year, a mysterious illness killed thousands of songbirds throughout the eastern United States. Now, a particularly severe strain of avian influenza virus (the cause of "bird flu") is surging throughout the country. Avian influenza virus primarily infects birds, which can pass it to each other through contact with other birds or their droppings. This year, the virus has been found in over 800 wild birds and 36 million domestic poultry throughout the United States. Although people can become infected with the virus, it's rare. Only one human case has been confirmed from this outbreak to date. So what does this mean for backyard birds? Should you do anything differently to help keep wild songbirds and pet chickens safe?

black and orange oriole perched at bird feeder with orange slices
Courtesy of Anne Readel

Do you need to take down bird feeders and waterers?

Many of us delight in seeing songbirds visit our feeders and waterers. But when a disease outbreak occurs, one of the first questions we ask is "do I need to take them down?" In the case of bird flu, there have been some mixed messages.

The University of Minnesota Raptor Center and at least three states (Michigan, Illinois, and Montana) have recommended taking feeders down. But other states haven't followed suit. And the leading wild bird organizations, including Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, haven't issued any sweeping guidance, stating only that you should follow your local agency recommendations. If you're confused about what to do, you're not the only one.

Bryan Richards, emerging disease coordinator at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center, helps clarify the situation. He says that you can choose to take down your bird feeders and waterers "out of an abundance of caution." However, he notes that songbirds appear to have a low risk of infection.

"The virus is having substantial impacts on wild birds," says Richards. But it primarily infects waterfowl, shorebirds, and carrion-eating birds like raptors, not songbirds. This year, two blue jays and 30 crows have tested positive for avian flu, comprising a very small proportion of confirmed cases. During the last avian flu outbreak in 2014 and 2015, only one chickadee and one European starling tested positive.

So why aren't songbirds at high risk of catching the virus? It all makes sense when you think about how the virus is transmitted, says Richards. Waterfowl and shorebirds are natural hosts for the virus and they pass it to each other by pooping in water. When an infected waterbird dies, a raptor may make a meal of it and become infected in the process. However, because none of these birds visit feeders, songbirds that feeders do attract don't come into much contact with the virus.

Not every situation is the same, however. If you live next to a pond with geese and ducks or next to a large commercial poultry facility, then birds visiting your feeders "may have an enhanced risk," says Richards. That's because living so close to high-risk birds makes them more likely to catch the virus from ducks, geese, or chickens, then spread it to other songbirds at the feeders.

So what about those organizations and states that say to remove feeders until the virus subsides? Richards notes that when you dig into their recommendations, they're generally also couching it as a cautionary approach. For example, Michigan told residents that they may want to remove bird feeders "from a place of abundance of caution…but it isn't yet a critical step."

If you decide to leave your feeders and waterers outside, make sure to clean them regularly. "Even if [avian flu] transmission at these backyard feeders or waterers is a low-risk proposition, there are plenty of other pathogens out there," says Richards. Regular cleaning of feeders and waterers with a bleach solution makes "a ton of sense across the board."

person holding chicken in background
Courtesy of Anne Readel

Should you be worried about your backyard chickens?

While songbirds have a low risk of infection, that's not the case for your backyard chickens. "The virus strikes chickens very quickly," says Casey Ritz, a professor and poultry extension specialist at the University of Georgia. Millions of domestic chickens have died of the avian flu over the last few months. While most deaths have been at commercial facilities, backyard flocks are also at risk.

"First thing people notice is that their chickens look healthy one day and the next day they're dead or dying in mass," says Ritz. Infected chickens can also show a variety of other signs, such as coughing and discolored wattles and combs.

To keep backyard flocks healthy, Ritz notes that it's very important "to minimize interactions with sick birds" and adopt some basic biosecurity measures. That means you shouldn't visit other flocks or share equipment with your neighbor who also keeps chickens. When you tend your flock, wear a dedicated pair of shoes and clothes. And if you want to bring new chickens home, make sure to purchase them from an NPIP-certified source, which means the chickens have been tested free of avian flu and other infectious diseases.

Backyard birds bring so much joy. It makes sense to take extra precautions while avian flu is raging, especially for backyard chickens. Since it's always a good idea to frequently clean feeders and waterers regularly, why not start that practice now? Exercising just a few extra precautions can help keep bird flu at bay and our feathered friends healthy.

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