Bird flu ravages poultry and wild bird populations in Colorado

As humans have faced a deadly respiratory pandemic for the past three years, a fast-spreading strain of bird flu has largely slipped under the radar. That is, until egg prices started to soar in the United States, including Colorado, and people started to wonder why. But the latest strain of highly pathogenic bird flu is about more than eggs, as it is a deadly disease for birds.“When we talk about impacts on domestic poultry, this virus causes nearly 100% mortality in poultry flocks. We see this with backyard poultry flocks. They die in a very short time. birds get sick and they’re dying very quickly from this virus,” says Colorado state veterinarian Maggie Baldwin.

This strain of HPAI, which has existed in North America since late 2021 after coming here from other continents, was first observed in Colorado in wild geese in the northeastern part of the state in March 2022. The first domestic bird case was observed in April this year. From then until November 2022, HPAI mortalities could be observed in raptors, waterfowl and vultures across the state.

But since this bird flu swept through Colorado last year, more than 6,246,700 commercial chickens have been affected by the disease, while 985 backyard poultry and more than 12,000 game birds feathers were also affected, until January 20, according to the Colorado department. of Agriculture.

This type of commercial bird pest is what has driven egg prices up across the country. Spread can occur when a poultry worker steps on infected goose droppings and drags it into a barn. Or small infected birds entering a chicken coop. Or even a migratory bird pooping on an installation while flying overhead.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Agriculture work together to manage situations in which there is a suspected outbreak of avian influenza at an egg production facility in Colorado. If there is a confirmed positive test for avian influenza, then all birds in that facility must be culled.

“We like to say depopulated or euthanized,” says CDA spokesperson Olga Robak, noting that birds must be slaughtered collectively because of trade agreements, the fact that birds will likely die anyway, and for prevent the virus from entering the food system.

This is also a humane treatment for birds, according to Baldwin, because the virus will almost certainly kill the animals.

“This virus causes systemic disease,” says Baldwin. “The most common clinical sign we see is sudden death. The most common we see is a group of birds dying at the same time.”

When the CDA learns of a possible case of bird flu, it sends a team to test the birds, whose samples are sent to an animal laboratory at Colorado State University. If the test comes back as a presumptive positive, the sample is sent to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Iowa to confirm the test.

Sometimes euthanasia can wait until confirmed test results come back. But if the birds are all clearly dying or about to die, authorities may opt to cull the birds before confirmed test results come back.

One way to eliminate chickens is to pump carbon dioxide into their housing. Another is to pump water-based foam into their barn, which leads to them dying of suffocation.

“If there’s enough room on site, they can be buried. They can also be composted. Or they can be disposed of in commercial or municipal trash,” Robak says.

However, the bird flu was not hard on the chickens alone. Wild birds have also started dying off en masse in Colorado, including an incident in recent months where more than a thousand dead geese were found along a single reservoir in northeastern Colorado. .

“Unlike previous strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza in North America, this particular strain causes widespread mortality in some species of wild birds, particularly snow geese, raptors and vultures. This strain has also caused the death of several species of mammals, particularly in skunks and foxes,” the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife notes on its website.

And the problem has played out in cities, too, leading Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment to issue a notice Jan. 25 asking people not to touch or pick up a dead bird with hands. naked.

“With the incidence of highly pathogenic avian influenza in birds in Denver and much of the region, the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) and Denver Parks and Recreation ( DPR) remind residents that birds and wildlife can carry disease. Residents should never handle wildlife and should keep pets away from sick or dead birds,” said Tammy Vigil, DDPHE spokesperson.

According to Vigil, his department and Parks & Rec have been receiving increasing calls from Denverites about “dead waterfowl,” most of which are geese, in some city parks, including Town Center Park in Green Valley Ranch. , as well as City Park and Washington Park. .

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Some of the crows in the 1700 block of Grant Street died of bird flu.

Conor McCormick-Cavanagh

For dead birds in parks, residents should call 311 to report dead animals.

“If you find a dead bird on private property, you can dispose of it yourself, but avoid direct contact with the remains. Wear disposable gloves, wrap the bird carefully, and place it in an appropriate outdoor trash can ( preferably covered), then call 311 to report it. If you are not comfortable with the idea of ​​getting rid of the bird yourself, you can call 311 to remove it,” says Vigil .

And humans and their handlers should also stay away from any bird that appears sick, such as those showing symptoms such as tremors or lack of coordination, swelling around the head, neck and eyes, a lack of energy or movement, coughing, gasping, sneezing or diarrhea, according to Vigil.

And Parks & Rec also discourages residents from trying to retrieve dead geese from frozen ponds or lakes in Denver.

“Don’t go onto the ice to retrieve dead or sick geese. This is another reason to keep your pets on a leash – to avoid the risk of them falling through the ice, as well as possible infections for your pet. pet,” says Vigil.

The risk of avian flu transmission from birds to humans is rare, but can occur, usually when a person spends a long time around or touches a dead bird and then touches their mouth, eyes or nose , according to the DDPHE.

According to Baldwin, there have been no “clinical human cases” of bird flu in Colorado.

The risk of transmission from a bird to a pet is also low, but the chances of transmission increase if a mammal eats an infected bird.

Also in Denver, a beloved crow killer numbering in the tens of thousands hanging around the 1700 block of Grant Street at night has also been hit with avian flu. While these birds crap all over the sidewalk and on parked cars, recent complaints to 311 have been about dead crows.

“These crows were tested for bird flu, and they came back positive,” says Vigil.

The danger also extends beyond the crows in Denver.

Meanwhile, due to rising egg prices, some Denver residents have started buying chickens to hatch their own eggs.

“Many people don’t know that highly pathogenic avian influenza poses a high risk to these birds,” Robak notes.

In fact, the way these birds get bird flu is from getting pooped by birds flying overhead.

(chain link alone won’t work) “We encourage people to keep their pets outdoors in a fine-mesh enclosure to prevent wild birds from ‘visiting,'” says Kenyon Moon, an urban bird expert based in Denver, who adds this channel the link alone will not work. “Hardware fabric on all six sides is ideal, as it also keeps rats and mice out.”

Although Baldwin isn’t sure how big the bird flu outbreak is in Colorado, she thinks there will be an increase in infections in the coming months as birds begin to migrate more. But there are biosecurity measures bird owners can take, some of which are listed in the USDA’s Defend the Flock tool, that can mitigate the risk of bird flu.

“I think it’s important to share these tools with the bird-owning public. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s concerning and worrying, and here’s what you can do about it. Here’s how you can protect your birds at home,” Baldwin says.

Bird flu ravages poultry and wild bird populations in Colorado

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