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Avian influenza a threat to backyard chicken owners

  • By Sarah Fay Campbell
  • |
  • Mar. 28, 2017 - 10:27 PM

With cases of bird flu now confirmed in a Georgia, people with backyard flocks of chickens can take precautions to limit the spread of the devastating disease.

A flock of chickens at a commercial breeding operation in north Georgia’s Chattooga County tested positive for “low pathogenic avian influenza.” The positive test was announced Monday by the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

With low pathogenic avian influenza, there are usually no visible symptoms. With the high pathogenic form, however, “within hours they are dead,” said Bryan Massengale, president of the Chattahoochee Valley Poultry Association, which is based in Coweta.

According to Monday’s announcement, avian influenza does not pose a risk to the food supply and the risk of humans being infected during poultry outbreaks is very low.

The Chattooga outbreak of the virus was identified during a routine pre-sale screening. The flock has been “depopulated,” that is, slaughtered.

State officials have been testing other poultry flocks in a surveillance area around the breeding farm. So far, there have been no more positive tests or any symptoms.

All commercially farmed chickens are tested before sale or slaughter, Massengale said.

“Because they have such a tight control over that, when something is detected they can get control of it and end it.

“With the backyard stuff, they really have no control of it,” he said. If the disease does get into backyard flocks, it’s hard to know where it’s coming from and where it is going.

A case of the influenza in Alabama was from an infected Guinea fowl at a sale, Massengale said.

On March 16, the state of Georgia put a ban on all poultry exhibits and sales at fairs, festivals, swap meets, flea markets and auctions. The order also prohibits the collection or assembly of poultry from one or more premises for the purposes of sale.

Baby chicks or eggs from facilities that are certified “clean” through the National Poultry Improvement Plan aren’t affected, at least not yet. Georgians whose farms are certified clean, or whose poultry has a negative test from the last 21 days can still take poultry outside of the state and can still sell chicks or eggs for hatching to individuals.

New regulations put into place in 2016 required any poultry crossing the border for exhibition to have paperwork showing a negative test or certified clean farm.

Florida recently put in place a permit process – in addition to testing procedures. To get a permit, Massengale said, you have to list the number of birds, the type of vehicle they are traveling in, the name of the driver and even the route they will be taking.

Massengale said he’s heard people say that if another flock tests positive, the borders will likely be closed.

“It’s a serious situation. There’s no doubt about it,” Massengale said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can to inform people about it and let people be aware of how serious it is.”

If you own chickens or other poultry and you go visit someone else who has them, be sure to disinfect your hands and your shoes before you get there and after you leave.

Massengale said he recently visited a fellow poultry association member’s house to look at some birds. “I changed my boots when I got out of the truck, and – before I got back into my truck – I changed my boots again,” he said. “I didn’t go out to my flock until I disinfected my hands.”

For Cowetans who have a few backyard chickens for eggs, it’s easy to start over if the worst happens.

But for commercial farmers or for someone like Massengale, who has spent many years improving the bloodlines of certain varieties he breeds, the stakes are high.

“I have four breeds that I am the only one in the U.S. that is really breeding,” he said. “If I had to depopulate – they’re done.” He said he has spent 10-12 years working with some breeds.

Other poultry enthusiasts have spent even longer carefully improving bloodlines.

“If I had to depopulate – I’m done. I can’t pick back up and start over,” he said.

If your birds test positive, “they don’t even talk to you about it. They just tell you when they’re coming” to slaughter all the birds in the flock, he said.

Sometimes people in Massengale’s situation will split their flocks, and relocate some birds so that if there is an infection, it won’t result in the loss of everything they’ve worked for. But Massengale said that’s not easy when “everybody that I know has chickens coming out of their ears.”

Massengale also runs the Coweta 4-H Poultry Chain, where youngsters raise chicks from babies to then exhibit at the Coweta County Fair. For now, they’re moving forward.

“The babies are coming in at the end of April – they’re coming from a certified clean hatchery,” he said. This year, as always, he’ll be teaching the youngsters about biosecurity and taking steps to prevent the spread of disease.

Avian influenza spreads from wild waterfowl, particularly migratory birds. Massengale said he’s been told that the outbreak may have something to do with the early March cold snap, when some birds heading north stopped for a few days to wait on warmer temperatures.

For questions about avian influenza or to report suspected cases, call the avian influenza hotline at 855-491-1432 or visit