Avian flu has zoos, backyard chicken owners on alert

Sonoma County has declared a state of emergency after a quarter million chickens at two commercial poultry farms had to be euthanized. The effort was a result of an unprecedented outbreak of ‘highly pathogenic avian influenza,’ also known as avian flu. 

It’s not just poultry farms that are seeing high-risk outbreaks. Wild and domestic birds are also at high risk for the deadly HPAI outbreak. 

Even some urban farmers’ birds are at risk, including hens and roosters that take up residence in Bay Area backyards. Preventing disease is the best way to keep your birds healthy and prevent highly pathogenic avian flu. 

One recommendation is to make sure your birds or chickens are separated from disease sources, including water for wild birds and wildlife. Backyard birds’ water and food sources should be kept clean, and all work and food storage areas should be sanitized regularly. 

Ted Pierce is an ornithologist and seasoned birdwatching teacher in Berkeley. Pierce was out on a walk with a group of students Friday afternoon along the waterfront next to Highway 80; an area known for shorebirds and predatory birds, among others. 

"Winter is actually a good time of year to birdwatch here because millions and millions of birds fly down here to this region at this time," said Pierce.

Avian flu is not something regular bird watchers can recognize, and Pierce admits he’s no expert on avian flu, but he believes it’s all part of the circle of life in nature. 

"I think bird flu is a natural progression of the flu virus, we have a temporary decrease in the population, but usually it comes back," he said.

The symptoms of avian flu include respiratory distress. But other symptoms aren’t obvious. 

Many naturalists worry that this avian flu is spreading beyond poultry farms – to birds in the wild and zoos.

Once birds get the deadly strain, there’s no cure, and once they reach a rehabilitation hospital, the sick birds usually need to be euthanized. 

At the Oakland Zoo, Vice President of Veterinary Services and Veterinarian, Dr. Alex Herman says, they’re doing everything they can to avert this avian crisis. 

"It started being a concern last year, so we wrote a whole policy for Oakland Zoo that was based on where birds were getting sick, what was the proximity to the zoo, what was the danger to the birds at the zoo," Herman said.

They’ve put together a plan in case of an outbreak, that includes isolating populations in their hospital unit.

"I think I have about one call a week about this. Professionals at zoos and aquariums all over the nation are talking about this and how to address it with a plan," she said.

According to Herman, so far no birds have been affected.

"If we have any birds coming in, coming out if a blue jay passes away on campus, all those birds are tested for HPAI. We’ve been doing that for about two years now…we haven’t come up with a single positive case. I don’t know if it’s hard work or good luck…but we’re proceeding very carefully."