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Poultry Farmers Take ‘Biosecurity’ Measures as Bird Flu Makes Contact in R.I.

Poultry Farmers Take ‘Biosecurity’ Measures as Bird Flu Makes Contact in R.I.

By Mary Lhowe

Maybe it’s a matter of geography; maybe it’s the diligence of local farmers and veterinarians. Or maybe it’s a touch of protective chauvinism in the only state whose official bird’s name — the dazzling Rhode Island red — includes the name of the state itself.

Whatever the reason, the bird flu — officially the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) — has touched down only once in Rhode Island this season, in a great black-backed gull found in mid-July in South Kingstown.

Rhode Island is the last New England state to identify a flu-infected bird and one of 38 states to document infected birds since late winter. As of July 29, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), bird flu touched down in 38 states in 400 flocks, with 40 million birds affected.

When a sick bird is identified as a “confirmed diagnosis,” all birds in the immediate area — be it a commercial chicken farm or a backyard flock — must be humanely killed, by law, under USDA rules and oversight.

USDA map of the United States shows the extent of infection in tints of green, from light to dark. Iowa stands out like a dark bulls-eye in the center of the country. For a bit of perspective, on a single date in mid-March, 5.3 million egg-producing chickens were killed in one Iowa county, according to the USDA.

In New England, only backyard flocks, not commercial farms, have been impacted, with numbers of affected birds ranging from Rhode Island’s one dead gull to 913 birds in Maine, which also was the site of a seal infected with bird flu.

Apart from poultry farmers and backyard bird hobbyists, the official front line of defense is state veterinarians, who work closely with the USDA and its animal protection arm, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIA).

Scott Marshall, Rhode Island’s state veterinarian, said the flu arrives in wild birds, which carry it but don’t die from it. Migratory flyways along the East Coast and west of the Appalachians are highways for the disease, which was first spotted, in the current season, in late winter in Canada, Marshall said.

Like COVID — a hard-to-avoid comparison — bird flu is passed by droplets in the birds’ breath, and also through feces.

Marshall admitted to a reluctant, shivery satisfaction when he quoted a USDA colleague’s succinct summary of the threat: “These are little eco bombs of virus falling from the sky when the birds migrate.”

Marshall said weapons to defend flocks come under the heading of “biosecurity” and mostly require that bird farmers and keepers limit contact between their birds and wild birds. This can be a special challenge for backyard bird keepers, whose birds might move about openly and use farm ponds visited by wild or migrating birds.

Other security measures include keeping birds in covered coops, protecting food and water dishes — from the threat of fecal-to-oral contact — not introducing new birds into a flock, and limiting the number of people, including farmworkers and visitors, who may enter farms and coops.

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