Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak finally reaches Alaska

After watching the 2022 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak spread across the country in recent months, it’s finally reached Alaska.

The first case was detected in a non-commercial backyard flock in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in late April. It was likely brought in by migratory birds, according to Alaska State Veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach.

The attached chart includes a variety of tasks for people raising chickens, ducks, and other fowl, and for birders who may see suspicious things happening to wild bird flocks. Please report any suspected cases to your veterinarian or Dr. Gerlach at 907-375-8215.

What you need to know about the 2022 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) has confirmed the presence of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in commercial and backyard birds in numerous states.

HPAI can infect poultry (such as chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, domestic ducks, geese, and guinea fowl) and wild birds (especially waterfowl). With the recent detections of HPAI in wild birds and domestic poultry in the United States, bird owners should review their biosecurity practices and stay alert to protect poultry and pet birds from this disease. Non-bird owners should also know the signs and symptoms of this disease for situational awareness and to help with the ongoing surveillance efforts.

The clinical signs of birds with Avian Influenza include:

  • Sudden death without clinical signs
  • Decreased water consumption up to 72 hours before other clinical signs
  • Lack of energy and appetite
  • Decreased egg production
  • Soft–shelled or misshapen eggs
  • Swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles, and hocks
  • Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs
  • Nasal discharge
  • Coughing, sneezing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Diarrhea

Both domestic and wild birds can be infected and show no signs of illness. Wild birds can carry the disease to new areas when migrating, potentially exposing domestic poultry to the virus. The following bio-safety guidelines are effective methods for safeguarding commercial operations, smaller flocks, and pet birds:

  • Backyard flock owners should practice strict biosecurity, including preventing birds from exposure and/or co-mingling with wild birds and other types of poultry.
  • Shower, change clothes, and clean and disinfect footwear before entering your poultry housing areas.
  • Respiratory protection such as a medical facemask, would also be important and remember to always wear clean clothes when encountering healthy domestic birds.
  • Carefully follow safe entry and exit procedures into your flock’s clean area.
  • Reduce the attractiveness for wild birds to stop at your place by cleaning up litter and spilled feed around poultry housing areas.
  • If you have free range guinea fowl and waterfowl, consider bringing them into coops or flight pens under nets to prevent interaction of domesticated poultry with wild birds and their droppings.
  • It is best to restrict visitors from interacting with your birds currently.
  • Do not touch sick or dead wildlife and keep them away from domestic poultry
  • Try not to handle sick or deceased domestic birds (if you must, use proper personal protective equipment to minimize direct contact and cautiously disinfect anything that comes into contact with the deceased and or sick bird).

The United States has the strongest Avian Influenza surveillance program in the world, where we actively look for the disease and provide fair market value compensation to affected producers to encourage reporting. Positive domestic cases are handled by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and its partners. Sick or deceased domestic birds should be reported to your local veterinarian. Sick or deceased domestic birds should be reported to your local veterinarian.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this strain of Avian Influenza is a low risk to the public. While the transmission rate from animals to humans is low, it is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be shared between species.

• Sitka residents team up to run neighborhood chicken coop co-ops

Some of the members of Le Coop, one of Sitka's chicken coop co-ops, pose with a few of their birds. (Daily Sitka Sentinel Photo by James Poulson, other photos in story are by Charles Bingham)

Some of the members of Le Coop, one of Sitka’s chicken coop co-ops, pose with a few of their birds. (Daily Sitka Sentinel Photo by James Poulson, other photos in story are by Charles Bingham)

Many Sitka families joined the backyard agriculture movement by starting gardens, but they hesitated when it came time to take the next step — raising chickens.

Chickens require daily feeding and watering, protection from predators, and other care that can be daunting for novices. However, a few Sitka families found an easier way. There now are a couple of chicken coop-co-ops in town, where neighbors or friends team up to share the duties and expense of raising chickens.

LeCoopOne of these chicken coop co-ops, Le Coop, is hidden in a back corner of the Sheldon Jackson Campus, where seven families are raising about 30 hens and one rooster. Le Coop is about 15 feet by 80 feet, with a hen house flanked by two outdoor chicken runs. The fence surrounding Le Coop is electrified (buried at least a foot below the surface to keep out varmints), with netting over the top to protect the chickens from eagles and other raptors. Inside the hen house are a dust bath for the hens, food and water buckets, an egg-laying box, and shelf space to store supplies such as extra feed.

“The advantage are only being responsible one day a week for regular chores such as feed, water, opening/closing, etc. Everything else is done at the whim of individual enthusiasms, and occasional work parties,” said Jud Kirkness, one of the co-op members. “Plus seven families means that many more people finding useful materials and resources and splitting the feed bill seven ways.”

LauraSchmidtWatchesChickensFeedLaura Schmidt, who Jud called the lead organizer/treasurer of the group, said there are six families of four and one couple, so 26 people. “About one person per hen,” she said. ” Each family typically gets about 18-30 eggs on their chicken duty day, with the hens laying more eggs in the summer.

Most of the hens were purchased as chicks last spring, and there are 15 each of red leghorns and black stars. The white rooster is of indeterminate origin, and he was added to the flock when another coop was culling its flock. Many people who raise chickens don’t like to keep roosters, but Laura said this one is small and the hens seem to be able to handle him.

The members of Le Coop have various levels of experience with raising chickens, and Erika Knox said Laura and Jud are the most experienced so they have been mentoring the other families. Erika said she wouldn’t be able to raise chickens at her house because there isn’t enough space, and lately she had to stop composting at home due to rats and other varmints getting into it.

EggsInLayingBox“This is a nice place to bring my compost, and the chickens love it,” Erika said. “It’s nice to have eggs that are fresh and organic. I give some away.”

Roger Schmidt and Kristen Homer called themselves the weak links of the group. “We just collect eggs,” Kristen said. “We let them (Laura and Jud) tell us what needs to be done.”

“It’s great because we have chicken experts like Jud and Laura, and we’ve got building experts,” said Roger, Laura’s brother and the director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which owns the Sheldon Jackson Campus where Le Coop is located. He said there have been a couple of occasions when he was in a meeting on campus and suddenly remembered he had chicken duty that day.

RedLeghornAndRoosterBesides being able to share duties and costs with the chicken coop co-op, another advantage to having Le Coop on campus is the learning experiences it provides.

“It’s good for the kids. They learn a lot about chickens,” Roger said. “I bring the Head Start kids back here all the time to check on the chickens.”

“The kids love it,” Kristen said. “Razie Guillory (Laura’s daughter) did a science project charting the growth of the hens, and Asa Dow is doing a project about the economics of the co-op.”

Jud said as soon as he gets this chicken coop to where he wants it, he plans to start another chicken coop co-op for other Sitka families. “I hope it provides some inspiration.”

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