When Jakie Devoid, co-owner of Maple Meadows Farm in Salisbury, learned that bird flu had reached Vermont earlier this spring, she was nervous. The Maple Meadows farm has around 40,000 laying hens, and the highly pathogenic strain of the virus is deadly to poultry.
“We have a nice pond right next to our farm, but we have a lot of Canadian geese visiting it,” she said. Knowing that wild and migratory birds can infect domestic flocks, “this makes us particularly nervous”.
But Devoid, echoing the sentiments of several other poultry farmers in the state, said his fears have subsided since the start of the season. She was able to take biosecurity measures, like keeping the boots regularly washed, which protected her birds from disease. And she hopes the warmer weather will kill the flu — which state officials say is possible.
Doug Morin, bird project manager and wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said an outbreak of avian flu in early 2015 was suppressed in June and July of that that year, “perhaps because warmer temperatures are less conducive to the virus”.
Vermont confirmed its first cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza – often called HPAI – in March. Although no humans have tested positive for the flu in the state, both wild and domestic birds have succumbed to it.
Confirmed losses so far include a flock of poultry in Caledonia County, four bald eagles, a red-tailed hawk, three Canada geese, a wood duck and two red-headed vultures in Vermont, according to the state website.
Although officials warned there were reasons to remain vigilant, they also said bird populations in the state have remained fairly stable.
For humans, the risk remains low. Only one person in the country has tested positive for bird flu in Colorado. The person, who was directly exposed to a domestic flock of infected birds, experienced fatigue for several days and has since recovered, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Vermont Department of Health is not currently monitoring anyone for bird flu in the state, according to Natalie Kwit, a state public health veterinarian.
Fox kits tested positive for the virus in the Midwest, but so far officials have not identified any other species with the virus in Vermont.
The risk is greatest for domestic poultry, which often die shortly after contracting the flu. Typically, if birds in a domestic flock contract the disease, the entire flock is culled to prevent the spread.
Blue Heron Farm in Grand Isle is not far from where a bald eagle was found dead with the virus earlier this spring. Christine Bourque, owner of the farm, said she was worried her herd might be infected, but had had no problems. She has about 150 organic laying hens and plans to raise another 500 broilers this summer.
“We were just very careful and made sure, if anyone comes to the farm, that everyone’s boots are washed – so just normal biosecurity stuff,” she said.
David Zuckerman, owner of Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg (and former lieutenant governor of Vermont) said he took precautions with his poultry.
“When we got our birds, we made sure they were tested, but on top of that, we didn’t mix them into our flock right away,” he said. “We put them in field pens with lids and kept them isolated for two weeks, almost three weeks, to make sure they didn’t develop any symptoms. Then, just a few days ago, we mixed them with our birds.
Zuckerman says he considered not buying any pullets or young laying hens this year because of the virus, which would have affected the revenue the farm makes from egg sales. Keeping the birds separated costs a few hundred dollars — not enough to harm the farm, he said.
“We’ve been luckier than others, where eggs are their main business,” he said.
Cases among wild birds are more difficult to track, according to Morin. Any bird can be a carrier or affected by the disease, he said, and some may show no symptoms.
“It seems to circulate mainly in waterfowl – ducks and related species. Gulls too,” he said. “And then there are secondary infections that you see in raptors and scavengers that will eat infected waterfowl.”
A total of eight bald eagles have died this spring, he said, but not all have been confirmed as cases of bird flu.
“There is some level of background mortality,” he said. “I probably get five or six dead eagles every year, even without bird flu.”
While that number isn’t enough to put the population at risk, authorities are keeping a close eye on bald eagles, which were recently removed from Vermont’s endangered species list.
Jillian Liner, conservation director for Audubon Vermont, said the eagle population could likely withstand a slight decline. Officials wouldn’t have taken the species off the list if its “population hadn’t reached a level where conservationists and biologists felt comfortable that it could sustain some loss and not experience a crash.” total population,” she said.
Still, eagles are a vulnerable species because they only breed when they are several years old and they usually only raise a few chicks each year, she said.
“It can have a bigger impact than, say, a robin in your front yard, where there are millions of them, and if they nest and they fail, they’ll nest, like, immediately. And they’re going to keep trying,” Liner said.
Members of Audubon chapters in various states are staying in touch and monitoring the disease, Liner said.
“I would say we’re worried,” she said, “but not overly worried.”
Department of Fish and Wildlife officials are asking Vermonters to take down backyard bird feeders, where birds typically congregate and can contract the virus. Bird rehabilitators are asked not to accept birds, as sick birds could infect others in their facilities.
Those who encounter sick or dead birds are asked to report the incident under certain circumstances, described on the state website. Vermont residents can alert the United States Department of Agriculture (1-866-536-7593) or state authorities (802-828-2421).
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