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Suffolk County case raises questions about possible spread of avian influenza strain in flocks

Long Island poultry producers are taking precautions to protect their flocks from highly pathogenic avian influenza, also known as HPAI, after the virus cropped up in a backyard flock a few weeks ago.

The Department of Agriculture has indicated that HPAI infections in birds are not an immediate public health concern and no human cases have been detected in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, HPAI “virus strains are extremely infectious, often fatal to chickens, and can spread rapidly from flock-to-flock.” 

The USDA confirmed HPAI among a backyard flock of eight in Suffolk County on Feb. 18. There have been two other confirmations of HPAI in New York backyard and commercial flocks so far in 2022, in Ulster and Dutchess counties. 

“This could be with us for a while and growers need to understand the practices that they need to adapt to protect their birds,” said Rob Carpenter, administrative director for the Long Island Farm Bureau. 

Sick birds should be reported right away to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, via the Division of Animal Industry, at 518-457-3502 or the USDA at 866-536-7593. A federal program “provides indemnity and compensation to producers” to remove animals of concern. 

Warning signs listed by the USDA include a sudden increase in bird deaths without any clinical signs; lethargy and low appetite; fewer and/or thin or misshapen eggs; swelling of the head, eyelids, comb, wattles and hocks; purple discoloration of the wattles, comb and legs; difficulty breathing; coughing, sneezing or a runny nose; stumbling or falling down and diarrhea.

“This is very serious and it’s one thing for Rob Carpenter to have three backyard chickens because he likes a couple of eggs now and then for breakfast. If my three chickens die, not a big deal, I can go buy three more chicks and raise them again,” Mr. Carpenter said. “But when you have a producer that relies on that flock or those eggs or that income, it’s very serious because that depopulation, the cleansing that’s needed, all of that infrastructure is going to be very costly and some of the bigger producers may not easily be able to recover from that.”

Mr. Carpenter said HPAI is highly transmissible in a number of ways, “whether it’s bird to bird, whether it’s wild bird to domestic bird — and I say domestic meaning farm birds — and even to the point where it could be passed by a human handling a bird or having stepped in soils that birds, touching another human and having that human spread it to another flock.”

The USDA depopulated the backyard flock with HPAI found in Suffolk County, Mr. Carpenter said, but advises commercial producers to implement a biosecurity plan for their flocks. Backyard producers should take proper precautions, including quarantining or restraining their birds from running “wild in their yards,” he said. 

“One of the things I’ve seen from producers is to make sure that the birds are indoors and sequestered. Wild waterfowl such as geese and ducks and things like that are carriers of the disease, even if they may not necessarily show symptoms,” Mr. Carpenter said. “A wild bird could come in, eat the feed of domestic poultry, leave and that saliva and bacteria is in the food.”

Suffolk County bird farmers have been alerted to the presence of HPAI and told to implement biosecurity protocols. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County held a seminar on March 14 on the dangers of HPAI and how to prevent it from spreading. 

Eireann Collins, a panelist from the state Dept. of Agriculture and Markets, emphasized that the disease can pose risks to the economy, environment and food security if precautions are not taken. She also asserted that the disease is not a public health concern.

“We want to eradicate this disease to prevent it from affecting additional birds and hope our producers that are affected get back into business,” she said.

Panelist Gavin Hitchener, director at Cornell University’s duck research laboratory, said he advises against pasture-raised birds. “From a biosecurity standpoint, there’s no good way the birds running around in the open to effectively essentially control that exposure or disease in that system,” he said.

Some preventative measures he suggested include changing shoes and clothing before and after interacting with the birds; minimizing the birds’ exposure to wildlife; frequent cleaning; and avoiding wooden structures, which are porous and can pose a transmission risk.

Abra Morawiec of Feisty Acres in Southold said the farm is quarantining its birds, which range from quail and ducks to chickens and turkeys. 

“Since this is our livelihood, it’s really important that we protect our flock from any possible contamination from outside sources,” she said. “The USDA recommends through their Defend the Flock website that we should discourage any unnecessary visitors from coming on the pastures or having contact with our birds.” 

If one of their birds fell sick, they would have to cull the entire population on the farm. 

Douglas Corwin of Crescent Duck in Aquebogue said keeping ducks in quarantine was already a regular practice for his farm long before the recent outbreak of HPAI.

“Avian flu is a huge worry for anyone who has poultry. It is no threat to humans, but can be devastating to anyone with poultry,” he said via email. “It’s almost always spread by the droppings of migratory birds such as wild geese and wild ducks. Extreme observance to proper biosecurity is imperative, in order to lessen any chance that it can be spread to a farmer or a backyard poultry enthusiast’s birds.”

Even Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead is taking precautions. Candyce Paparo, senior curator of mammals, birds and reptiles, said the aquarium has moved penguins into an isolated indoor habitat and increased roof coverings over owls. 

The penguins are “in a couple of our holding areas that are behind the scenes that are not viewable to the public, but at this time in our protocol we are still offering guest encounters with the penguins,” she said. 

For an extra fee, guests may still visit personally and take photos with the penguins, so long as they wash their hands and wear shoe coverings. Guests with outdoor birds of their own may not visit with the penguins.

“We’re asking them not to participate in the encounter just so that we can ensure the health and welfare of our penguins and our bird species,” Ms. Paparo said. “If somebody does book an encounter and we ask them that question and they tell us that they do have chickens at home, they will be refunded, but we’re asking people not to participate in the encounters right now, again, if they do have poultry or other outdoor bird species at home.”

“It could be extremely detrimental to our colony because it’s very contagious. If one of our penguins were to contract it, then the entire colony that we have is susceptible to succumbing to the disease,” she added.

Staff are taking extra precautions as well, through measures such as changing footwear when appropriate. The quarantine was implemented a few weeks before a pre-scheduled move to the indoor holding areas for renovations to the outdoor penguin habitat. 

“It’s not something that people at this point should be worried about contracting. It seems to be a pretty specific disease for the most part,” Ms. Paparo said. “I would just ask people to help us out and if they are going to be visiting the aquarium to make sure that they — again, if they have poultry or outdoor bird species at home — change their footwear, change their clothes, and make sure they’re washing their hands before they come visit our animals here.”