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Avian influenza is on the rise. Here’s what Oklahoma State University researchers advise

Backyard chickens
Todd Johnson
Oklahoma City residents can raise a flock of up to six chickens or quail in their backyard.

Deadly avian influenza in backyard flocks is being reported across Oklahoma, and researchers say flock owners should remain on high alert.

Migrating waterfowl like ducks typically carry a strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) leading to a rise of cases in poultry during the fall. Rossyln Biggs, an OSU extension veterinarian, said it's almost always deadly to poultry.

Cases of HPAI have been identified in backyard poultry flocks in Carter, Wagoner and Grady counties and a domestic swan in Oklahoma County. Biggs said no cases have been detected in commercial poultry populations.

“However, those producers have really, really fantastic biosecurity,” Biggs said. “They learned a lot of lessons, particularly when we saw how highly pathogenic avian influenza in 2013 and 2014.”

Ten years ago, about 50 million U.S. chicken and turkeys died of highly pathogenic avian influenza or were killed to stop the spread of the disease, according to USDA. Because the virus is so contagious, Biggs said people have a part to play in protecting the state and nation's flock of poultry.

To prevent birds from getting sick, researchers like Biggs have a few suggestions such as making sure domestic and wild birds don’t share food or water and preventing contact with wild birds.

“For instance, if I'm a duck hunter, I don't want to be bringing ducks back to my own operation and then go feed my chickens in the backyard,” Biggs said. “I want to create time and space because even people and vehicles can transmit the virus that has been seen.”

Signs of HAPI in poultry include difficulty breathing, a quiet flock and decrease in egg production. Biggs said owners who quickly lose a dramatic number of birds in their flock, need to contact their veterinarian, the state veterinarian’s office or extension educator.

As Thanksgiving approaches next week, Biggs said so long as poultry products – including that Thanksgiving turkey – are cooked properly, they will be safe to eat.

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Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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